Special Photo: Austin McAfee Grayson grad Denzel Nkemdiche redshirted his freshman season at Ole Miss and is aiming to make an impression on defense this fall.
Denzel Nkemdiche stepped onto Ole Miss' campus last summer with high expectations.
The Grayson grad expected to battle for playing time as a true freshman until he hit a roadblock. Nkemdiche pulled his hamstring during fall camp and was out for six weeks.
"Definitely, I was disappointed," said Nkemdiche, whose younger brother Robert is the nation's No. 1 recruit at Grayson. "I was supposed to come in and make an impact, but it was a learning experience."
After a year on the scout team, Nkemdiche is healthy and ready to battle for playing time agin.
Nkemdiche was moved from safety to stinger, a hybrid outside linebacker/safety position, during the spring. He will battle with senior Aaron Garbutt, who started nine games last year, as the starter this fall.
"My speed and physical attributes fit perfect for that position," Nkemdiche said.
The position switch is not the only change for Nkemdiche at Ole Miss. Former Arkansas State head coach Hugh Freeze replaced Houston Nutt, who was fired in November. The Rebels ended the 2011 season by going 2-10 and losing their last seven games. They have lost 14 straight SEC games dating back to the 2010 season.
"Coach Freeze believes in more discipline love," Nkemdiche said. "He loves player accountability."
The 5-foot-11, 211-pound Nkemdiche has put on 14 pounds since moving to Oxford, Miss., but has still maintained his speed by working out with his former position group. He said he runs a 4.49-second 40-yard dash.
"I had a really good summer," Nkemdiche said. "Even though I'm a linebacker, I still ran with the DBs to keep my speed."
Nkemdiche helped Grayson reach the Class AAAAA semifinals as a senior. He drew little college interest due to his grades and test scores.
He signed with a junior college on National Signing Day, but ended up qualifying academically in the summer and was a late addition to the Ole Miss signing class.
Nkemdiche recovered from his pulled hamstring early during last season and was asked to pull his redshirt, but wanted to keep it. After his first year of college, he holds a 2.7 GPA.
"I grew up a lot over one season," he said.
He's hoping that maturity will help him this year.
"No matter what, I'm going to play," Nkemdiche said. "If it doesn't end up with me starting the first game, I'll still end up on the field."
Nkemdiche also plays special teams as a member of the kickoff, kickoff return and punt teams.
"My goal is to make All-SEC," Nkemdiche said. "Our goal as a team is to make it to a bowl game and finish off with a strong recruiting class and bring in them boys from Grayson."
Nkemdiche's reference to his alma mater has to do with his brother Robert and two of his Rams teammates, who all committed to Clemson this summer.
"No, it hasn't affected me too much," Nkemdiche said of his brother's media attention. "I've told him do what's best for him and go where his heart tells him."
Robert Nkemdiche has been the talk of recruiting message boards for years. His surprise commitment to Clemson in June drew so much attention that he was trending on Twitter. The notoriety has brought fame to the Nkemdiche family, something Denzel plans to continue at Ole Miss.
"It's exciting," Nkemdiche said. "I'm curious to see what we are going do with the name."