Robert Nkemdiche gave Ole Miss football fans a reason to believe even if the former No. 1 overall recruit didn’t give fans a reason to believe in him.
The Arizona Cardinals released former first round pick Robert Nkemdiche and the former Ole Miss product cleared waivers and is now a free agent. Nkemdiche is far from the first bust, but he’s one of the biggest in recent years.
From being the consensus No. 1 recruit and being compared to Reggie White with a blend of size, strength, power and quickness and lauded as the most hyped recruit from the southeast since Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker. Expectations were as high as the upper section in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“He’s the best defensive line prospect in high school I’ve ever seen and it’s not even close,” Central Gwinnett High School coach Todd Wofford told ESPN in 2013. “He has it all. We held him to two sacks, and I thought we did a great job on him. When he decides he wants to get back there, he’s going to get back there. It doesn’t matter how many guys you put on him.”
“It’s unbelievable how compacted he is,” North Gwinnett High School coach Bob Sphire said. “Obviously, he must be all muscle. I’ve had some of the older recruiters come through here and tell me he’s Lawrence Taylor.”
Nkemdiche wasn’t Reggie White. He wasn’t Lawrence Taylor. Not even close.
He had the potential to be special but very little production, and the biggest problem was he seemed to love the attention, fame and lifestyle that came with being a great football player but didn’t love putting in the work and effort required to be a great football player.
Nkemdiche started 10 of 11 games as a freshman at Ole Miss where he was the centerpiece of the Rebels top 10 recruiting class under former head coach Hugh Freeze. He along with Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner was supposed to lead the Ole Miss turnaround and help the Rebels challenge Alabama and LSU for SEC West titles. While Ole Miss raised their profile during his stay, it wasn’t Nkemdiche having the transcendent impact that was foretold in his high school days.
He made 34 total tackles, two sacks, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. That’s far from the type of output expected of the can’t-miss recruit who is the second coming of Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor. Despite being named Freshman All-SEC and a First-team Freshman All-American, it was a disappointing season for him individually.
Still, Ole Miss fans loved him and were excited for his and the team’s future.
As a sophomore, Nkemdiche anchored the middle of the line as the defense led the nation in points allowed per game. While box score statistics don’t paint the entire picture for interior defensive linemen, the stats were alarming. Ole Miss was dominating with him, not because of him.
Nkemdiche had 35 total tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and one pass breakup. The sack and tackle for loss numbers are what elite defensive tackles get in single games.
He often disappeared for long stretches of the season but would pop for a standout game like his seven tackle, three tackle for loss game vs. rival Mississippi State. He would flash the ability that had scouts raving about his potential coming out of Grayson High School. It was that potential that made him a late first round pick but the tendency to disappear followed him to the NFL.
Nkemdiche only had 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks across 27 games (six starts) in three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.
His tendency to find himself in trouble off the field in college also followed him to the NFL.
Nkemdiche’s junior season saw him rack up seven tackles for loss and three sacks, career-highs in both categories, but far from the type of numbers expected of a top recruit. His career totals of 16 tackles for loss and six sacks is a far cry from what Ole Miss fans dreamed of when he signed his letter of intent on National Signing Day. He left fans wanting more. He left fans disappointed. He left fans hurt after his career ended in turmoil.
He was charged with marijuana possession after he broke a window and fell about 15 feet from his hotel window at the Grand Hyatt. Police found seven marijuana cigarettes in his room and he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl before declaring for the NFL Draft.
“While I wish I could have finished this journey with my team, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this program, and I am ready to begin the next phase of my life,” Nkemdiche said in a statement. “I have learned a valuable lesson in the last week, and I look forward to showing NFL personnel that this is not representative of my true character. I want to thank my coaches, my teammates and Rebel Nation for their support these past three years, and I look forward to making them proud for years to come.”
Nkemdiche helped change the profile for Ole Miss and he meant a lot to the program for what he represented, but his three years in Oxford left fans with a feeling of “what could have been.”
He had the look of a top-five pick and potential All-Pro who could wreck games like Aaron Donald. Instead, he wrecked his career by repeating the same bad decisions he made in college.
First-year Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was miffed when Nkemdiche showed up to Cardinals camp overweight and out of shape.
“Not in shape, I guess. And that’s kind of where we’ll leave it,” Kingsbury told reporters. “I mean, he’s on PUP and he’s working through that. When he is cleared, we’ll work with him.”
This came about a month and a half after Nkemdiche was pulled over speeding, which officers later found out he had a warrant out for his arrest stemming from a traffic violation. During the stop, officers found cocaine in his car, but for some reason, the police didn’t pursue drug charges.
Nkemdiche was entering a pivotal season after the Cardinals didn’t pick up his fifth-year option. His career and future were in the balance and he was in possession of cocaine, had a warrant out for his arrest and then shows up to work overweight, disappointing coaches and teammates.
This is what Robert Nkemdiche has proven himself to be.
Six years ago he was compared to Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor, two of the greatest players of all time.
Today, he’s compared to Darrell Russell, Courtney Brown and the biggest busts and disappointments in recent NFL Draft history.
The final chapter is not written for Nkemdiche as it is for those players, but the last words in his story are “wasted potential.”
Two of the worst words you want to be attached to anyone.