Nobody expected UT-Martin to pose a threat to Ole Miss in Saturday’s season opener in Oxford, and the Rebels won convincingly 76-3. Few also expected an early season blowout victory over an FCS opponent to make a defensive player a factor in the Heisman Trophy race. But, Robert Nkemdiche may have done exactly that.
No primarily defensive player has won the Heisman Trophy since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. Of course, Woodson upped his chances by contributing on offense and starring on special teams. Who knew Nkemdiche would check both of those boxes against the Skyhawks?
A part-time running back in high school, the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Nkemdiche has been used on offense a few times in Oxford, most notably when he gained 21 yards on four carries (including an 18-yarder) against rival Mississippi State as a true freshman in 2013. Saturday, head coach Hugh Freeze slipped his All-American defensive tackle into the backfield and called for a play-action pass. Wide open in the flat, Nkemdiche caught the short toss from quarterback Ryan Buchanan and raced untouched to the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown.
While many were probably tempted to celebrate a #FatGuyTouchdown on Twitter, Nkemdiche looks more like a tight end than most nearly 300-pound lineman. He’s fast. And not fat.
Then, later in the second quarter, with the Landshark defense trying to keep UT-Martin off the scoreboard before halftime, Nkemdiche slipped through and blocked a 23-yard field goal attempt. That’s a second big, non-defensive play in the first 30 minutes of the season that could capture the attention of Heisman voters.
Because he plays defensive tackle, much of Nkemdiche’s impact flies under the radar. It’s hard for anyone to rack up tackles and quarterback sacks when they are constantly the focus of double and triple teams from opposing offenses. Last season, Nkemdiche had 35 tackles and two sacks and he tallied three stops Saturday. However, all that extra attention from offensive coordinators and blockers frees up the other Rebels to make big plays.
Looking ahead, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack is sure to move his best player all over the defensive line — especially in more important games, like the Sept. 19 trip to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama — to create matchup advantages, which should help Nkemdiche pick up a few of the sexier statistics he would need to make a Heisman push. Still, Nkemdiche will need to put up big numbers — like double-digit sacks — to even earn a trip to the award ceremony in New York.
Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh may be the best comparison to Nkemdiche. A defensive tackle for the Cornhuskers, Suh had an incredible 85 tackles and 12 sacks and added an interception in 2009, which earned him the fourth most voted in Heisman voting.
In 2012, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished second in the Heisman voting behind Johnny Manziel in a season in which he recorded more than 100 tackles, 1.5 sacks and intercepted seven passes. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finished sixth that same season after recording 13 sacks.
Nkemdiche’s biggest competition for the Heisman among defenders is Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright, who finished ninth in the voting last season after amassing 153 total tackles, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. However, Wright suffered a knee injury in the season opener Thursday against UTSA. Wright is expected to miss at least two weeks of playing time. Nkemdiche spent some time in the Ole Miss locker room himself in the second half Saturday with a minor knee injury, but isn’t expected to miss any more action.
It was just one game, and it occurred far from the bright lights of a nationally televised primetime matchup between SEC heavyweights. But, if Nkemdiche continues to prove himself as one of the best defensive players in America — and scores a few touchdowns and makes a few big special teams plays along the way — he just might make some noise in the Heisman race this season.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.