RENTON, WA - As Seahawks defenders exited their opening bag drill, which has been a tradition kicking off practice since coach Pete Carroll arrived in 2010, Robert Nkemdiche sprinted towards the stands. Bobbing up and down along the yellow line players aren't allowed to cross to maintain social distance protocols from fans, he's ready to take on the role of hype man.
"Let's go! Let's gooooooo!" Nkemdiche shouts to the top of his lungs, drawing loud cheers as he fired up a crowd of more than 2,000 amped-up 12s.
Such a scene has become common place during Seattle's practices since Nkemdiche joined the team as a free agent in April. Even when there weren't fans on the berm during OTAs and minicamps, his voice could probably be heard all the way down in Tacoma while popping sleds and smacking tackling dummies.
But as he admitted to reporters following Saturday's third training camp practice, Nkemdiche hasn't always exhibited such enthusiasm and exuberance for football. He's never as much fun and received this much joy from playing the game as he has so far with the Seahawks.
“It definitely is for me, and I love it, man," Nkemdiche smiled. "Its just special here and I feel like I’m in the right place and I’m grateful to be here.”
Before signing Nkemdiche three months ago, Carroll certainly didn't know he had such an infectious energy in him. Now that he's seen a side to the veteran defender he didn't know existed, he isn't about to curtail such a "beautiful spirit" from expressing himself.
“He really cares about having fun and enjoying it. I can’t imagine someone putting a lid on him back in the day. Maybe that’s why some of the stories came out," Carroll joked, referencing stories such as Nkemdiche apparently wanting to buy a panther after the NFL draft in 2016. "Here we welcome the spirit of it and what he brings, and everyone has to get a long and fit in and all that. He does too. I don’t want to harness that kind of love for being outgoing and expressive and all that. I don’t want to get in the way of all that. I’m going to cheerlead for that.”
Drafted in the first round by the Cardinals coming out of Ole Miss in 2016, Nkemdiche struggled during his first three NFL seasons, As a rookie, he was a healthy scratch for all but five regular season games, recording a single tackle. He was again a non-factor in 2017, generating only 11 tackles and failing to produce a sack in 12 games.
Then, once Nkemdiche finally seemed to be figuring things out during his third season, he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Arizona's 10th game. He finished the year with 32 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and nine tackles for loss, but all of the positive vibes coming out of the season disappeared when he reported to training camp the next summer overweight and out of shape. The Cardinals released him and he lasted just two games with the Dolphins before being cut again.
Unable to land with a team in 2020, Nkemdiche said he developed a new appreciation for the game sitting out an entire season. Motivated to work his way back into the league, the athletic 300-pound defender showed up at his workout for the Seahawks in top shape and the team promptly signed him before April's draft.
“I just feel like I had to mature a little bit. I had to mature, and I had to become a student of the game," Nkemdiche reflected. "I really had to become a student and it’s a lot different. Just really studying the game, that’s really all it is.”
Since practicing with the Seahawks for the first time in June, Nkemdiche has done nothing but impress teammates and coaches, crediting his success thus far to having a "clear mind and clear focus."
"In this league to have a chance to be successful, you have to have a clear mind, and you have to focus, and you have to know exactly what you’re doing," Nkemdiche said. "And you have to fall in love with what you’re doing and find a way to elevate and learn. I’m at that place, but I’m not there yet. I’m still getting there but it’s just about having that mentality is just what I’m excited about. It’s all about that approach.”
Since camp opened, Nkemdiche hasn't just been a cheerleader on the practice field. While his vibrant energy has quickly won over 12s in the stands, he also has made plenty of statements with his on-field play. During drill work, he has nearly knocked over a one-man sled multiple times, putting his impressive power on display to the delight of fans.
During team sessions, Nkemdiche has also been a force to reckon with. In Seattle's opening practice last Wednesday, he used a lightning quick first step to split a gap and blow up a pair of run plays several yards in the backfield. Then in Thursday's second practice, while playing 4i-technique shading the right tackle's inside shoulder, he immediately penetrated the backfield off the snap and set up shop, devouring running back DeeJay Dallas for another tackle for loss.
Though he cautioned that the Seahawks have yet to have a padded practice, Carroll has loved everything he has seen from Nkemdiche over the past few months. He has long tantalized with his rare blend of size, quickness, length, and football awareness, but for the first time in his career, he seems to be maximizing those traits on the field.
"The plays that he’s making in games that are highlighted plays; the quickness, the burst, the willingness to just sell out, go for it and chase the football. He’s a penetrator, he throws his body around and causes problems for the other team. That’s happened in practice," Carroll gushed. "And he looked exactly the same even though we aren’t in pads yet. I was really fired up because sometimes you aren’t sure what you’re getting. He’s off to a fantastic start. I’m really excited about what he brings.
I went back yesterday and went back and looked at the cut-ups that I had when we evaluated him before, because now I’ve seen him on a field and seen things that he does. and I just wanted to see it again. Athletically, really great size, 300 lbs. He’s long, he’s tough and his quickness is really there. He’s also a good football player with sense and awareness. He’s got a good feel for getting to the ball, it’s all really good traits.”
In another sign of his maturation, Nkemdiche knows he hasn't accomplished anything yet. While he believes he's back on the right track after his career came off the rails, he still has much left to prove to earn a roster spot next month. Along with maintaining his role firing up the crowd, he's focused on improving his craft as a player and continuing to learn from other veterans such as Bobby Wagner and Carlos Dunlap what it means to be a professional.
But following a near-perfect start with the Seahawks, he's not the least bit concerned about staying motivated and achieving those goals. Thriving in an environment that has consistently been beneficial for unique personalities and talents under the leadership of Carroll and his staff, he believes the best is yet to come.
“There’s nothing to worry about. I mean, just wake up every day and you just keep growing, and you keep your mentality. You just always know there’s a new level and you’re never there. You start to crave what’s next. I did this good, so what’s next? What do I have to do if I want to dominate? You don’t want to be mediocre, there’s only greatness and you want to chase that. If you’re playing this game you want to be the best and so if you want to be the best, there’s a lot of stuff you have to do. A lot of work you have to put in, a lot of mental focus you have to put in. So, you have to do that, and keep driving yourself and see what happens.”