No. 3 Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche dominating for Rebels
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Robert Nkemdiche's eyes light up when talking about the transformation that's made him one of college football's most dominant players.
But the gigantic defensive tackle - who at 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds anchors No. 3 Mississippi's defense - doesn't mention anything about work in the weight room, speed training or a greater understanding of football.
Instead he talks about Zen and centering himself.
He talks about interstellar science and enlightened souls.
He brings up Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead and traveling down `The Golden Road.'''
''I have a different role on this team - a different DNA,'' Nkemdiche said. ''I feel like this is the moment where I'm the one that needs to step up and make my energy felt.''
Whether it was Zen or just the brute force of his body crashing through Alabama's offensive line, Nkemdiche had the best game of his college career in the Rebels' stunning 43-37 victory over the Crimson Tide last Saturday.
Nkemdiche doesn't believe the Rebels will have a letdown over the next few weeks with no ranked opponents on the schedule; Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hosts Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1 on Saturday.
But way he sums it up is a little different the most football players.
''This team is stuck in the moment,'' Nkemdiche said. ''Because the moment's real beautiful.''
The freakishly athletic Nkemdiche has always had a spiritual side that's slowly developed since he was a teenager. The 21-year-old - who came to Ole Miss from Loganville, Georgia, as the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country - said his time spent in ''front of the lens'' has helped him realize there's more to life than fame.
''I don't need other people to define me because I'm defined inside,'' Nkemdiche said.
He and his older brother Denzel, a fifth-year starting linebacker for the Rebels, are the children of Nigerian immigrants. His dad, Dr. Sunday Nkemdiche, does research in cardiology while his mom Beverly frequently travels back to Nigeria where Robert said she works in the Nigerian legislature.
The senior Nkemdiche is proud his son takes such a cerebral approach to the game.
''My wife and I read a lot and we like to broaden our horizons,'' he said. ''We always told him that no matter what you do, knowledge is power. It's always a good thing.''
The doctor said he gets to see most of his sons' games. Beverly makes it back for a couple each season: She was on hand when Robert caught a 31-yard touchdown pass against UT Martin and plans to return for the LSU game, which will be senior night for Denzel.
She didn't get to watch Robert's performance against the Tide because it started at 2:15 a.m. in Nigeria, but she pieced enough together from various video clips to figure out he had a good game.
The opportunity for the Nkemdiches to see their sons play together in college seemed like a longshot four years ago.
Even after Denzel, who wasn't as highly recruited as his brother, chose Ole Miss in 2011, it looked like landing Robert would be a longshot for Mississippi. The Rebels had a 2-10 record in 2011 and coach Houston Nutt was fired, leading to Freeze's hiring.
Ole Miss dramatically improved to 7-6 in 2012 under Freeze, which gave Robert enough confidence that the Rebels were heading in the right direction. He was the cornerstone of the 2013 recruiting class that included current stars like receiver Laquon Treadwell.
''We just had a good feeling about this place,'' Denzel Nkemdiche said.
Since Robert Nkemdiche arrived in Oxford, the coaching staff has asked him to change positions - from defensive end to defensive tackle, which is often regarded as less glamorous because it's harder to get sacks.
Nkemdiche never complained.
''The guy has absolutely no pretentious spirit or ego or that gimmie, gimmie attitude,'' Freeze said. ''This guy wants to earn everything and he wants to be coached.''
Then there are also Nkemdiche's cameos on the offensive side of the ball. His touchdown catch in the season opener against UT Martin - when he snatched the ball out of the air before running downfield with the ease of a polished wide receiver - was especially impressive.
It's those types of J.J. Watt-like achievements that have turned him into a bit of a legend even in his own locker room. It's also elevated his status as an intriguing NFL prospect.
Teammates usually describe Nkemdiche as driven and quiet, someone who is generally friendly but keeps his circle of close friends tight.
He's not a guy who gives loud locker room speeches or talks a lot of trash.
''He's always been that way,'' said Mickey Conn, Nkemdiche's high school coach in Georgia. ''That's what I love about him and I enjoy about him. He knows he's good and he doesn't have anything to say or prove to anyone. He goes out and performs.''
Nkemdiche was a very good player during his first two seasons at Mississippi, usually as a ubiquitous force in the middle of the field. He just didn't have the stats to show for it, with 12 career tackles for a loss and four sacks over his first two seasons.
Until his breakout performance against Alabama.
''The opportunity has always been there,'' Nkemdiche said. ''It's just focusing on the actual play and not letting my mind spaz out. It's almost like a meditation - I'm really focusing on the moment. I'm not worrying about anything else.''
Nkemdiche feels closer to his full potential than ever, but is hesitant to claim victory.
''I hate to ever say I'm there,'' Nkemdiche said. ''You're there but you're never there. It's a paradox.''
Much like the player himself.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP . AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org .