Skip to content
Still a philosopher, Robert Nkemdiche...

Still a philosopher, Robert Nkemdiche looks to reinvent himself in CFL

By: Parrish Alford - June 18, 2024

  • Sport columnist Parrish Alford talks football and life with former Rebel great Robert Nkemdiche.

There’s something special about Robert Nkemdiche. The mix of height, mass and quickness screams big-play machine.

It earned Nkemdiche the coveted spot of being the No. 1 rated football recruit in the country and the only top-ranked player Ole Miss football has ever signed. Nkemdiche’s atheleticism was matched only by his flamboyance, on and off the field.

Eleven years later, there’s still something special about Robert Nkemdiche — special enough that he’s landed with Edmonton in the Canadian Football League with hopes of one day getting back to the NFL.

I spoke with the freakish athlete this week. Nkemdiche said that right now the CFL “is everything I need in the game.”

The CFL season is in full bloom and the big man is off to a good start on the field. While his Elks team is 0-2, Nkemdiche, playing mostly on the defensive line interior, has had a sack in each game and had four tackles in last Friday’s 23-20 loss to Montreal.

The Elks are back at it Saturday at Toronto.

That special ability has always attracted coaches. Nkemdiche, after a stellar high school career in suburban Atlanta, turned down a lot of them to sign with Hugh Freeze as the centerpiece of the Rebels’ much-scrutinized recruiting class of 2013. His brother Denzel was already on the roster, a high-motor defensive back and, if you weren’t bothered by the size, a linebacker.

The brothers are the sons of Nigerian immigrants.

Critics say Robert Nkemdiche’s college career was too light on big plays for a player of his magnitude.

The NFL draft, however, is about pro potential, not college production. And Robert Nkemdiche was a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2016.

Mississippi’s Robert Nkemdiche poses for photos after being selected by the Arizona Cardinals as the 29th pick in the first round of the 2016 NFL football draft, Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Chicago. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

Nkemdiche was one of three first-round Ole Miss picks that night in Chicago, but he and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell were somewhat overlooked when social media pictures surfaced of Laremy Tunsil and a bong pipe. (See 2013 class scrutiny above.)

Nkemdiche had a chance to rewrite his own narrative after signing a four-year, $8.6 million deal with the Cardinals which included a $4.5 million signing bonus.

A turbulent three years included knee surgery and criticism from two different Cardinals head coaches, Bruce Arians first, then Kliff Kingsbury.

Short stints with Miami, Seattle, and San Francisco followed before exiting the league with none of the fanfare that came in the youth of his football career. Nkemdiche had 59 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a touchdown in 38 career games in the NFL.

Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (92) during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

He was released from professional spring football after half a season with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers last April.

When Nkemdiche was cut by the USFL, former Cardinals GM Steve Keim had this to say:

“In Arizona, I drafted Robert Nkemdiche with the 26th pick overall who we thought was a top-10 talent, and there were some concerns and questions about him coming out,” Keim told the Green Light with Chris Long podcast via The Arizona Republic newspaper. “At the end of the day really, the guy just, in my opinion, didn’t love football enough. He didn’t succeed or play at a high level because he was in love with the process of going through the draft, being the top pick, getting money. But when it was time to grind, that wasn’t his focus.”

Harsh. Still, the potential of Nkemdiche, the special ability, remains alluring for coaches and executives.

It’s not a leap to believe that Edmonton might be the last chance for Robert Nkemdiche, who turns 30 in September, to prove Keim and other naysayers wrong.

He says questions about his multiple stops and re-starts, short stays and commitment were not something he had to answer in Edmonton.

“No, because it’s a periodic thing,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s the characteristics, you know, that stand behind the individual that needs to be the discussion, you know? I think work ethic comes with the knowledge of knowing what it takes. You have to have the foundation built off what the ethics are.”

Former Ole Miss Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack (Courtesy Ole Miss Athletics)

Former Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, who saw the collegiate Nkemdiche every day, never joined the chorus of opposition.

“We had an outstanding recruiting year, and we were very thankful to get Robert along with some other top players in the nation,” Wommack recalled.

“What I understood about Robert is Robert almost always took up two people. When you’re playing 11 against 11, and two of them have to account for Robert, that’s a plus-one in my opinion.”

Nkemdiche, now listed at 6-3, 317, finished his Ole Miss career with 41 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and six sacks. There were times that Nkemdiche dominated, and often, it was when the stage lights shined brightest.

In 2015, his final seasons, when the Rebels upset No. 2 Alabama 43-37 in Tuscaloosa, Nkemdiche had six tackles and 2 ½ tackles for loss.

Five weeks later when the Rebels won 27-19 at Auburn he had four tackles, three of them solos, and broke up a pass.

Between those SEC encounters, Nkemdiche was credited with one total tackle in wins over Memphis and New Mexico State.

The down times have value, he says.

“I’m happy that some of those times were able to be experiences that I can take and add to the collective of everything, add those elements to my game and see how it makes a difference to be invested as a student, to just let it come natural,” he said.

Whatever was happening with Robert, Denzel was usually a motivating factor. 

“Denzel, I’d have to put him in the top five of guys that got it. He totally got the defense, ran the defense on the field as a general,” Wommack said.

Mississippi linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, right, brother defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, center, and defensive end Fadol Brown (6) leave the field after beating Vanderbilt in an NCAA college football game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Denzel has led a less public life after Ole Miss than his more famous brother. 

Robert says Denzel is involved in tennis and music and travels back and forth between the Atlanta area and Edmonton.

“If Robert’s up in Canada, I would think Denzel is not far from him,” Wommack said. “Everything Denzel did, Robert followed.”

It hasn’t always been Denzel in the lead. There have been uniquely Robert moments such as telling ESPN prior to the draft that he hoped to buy a panther.

That goal, like some others, has yet to materialize. He remains hopeful. A Komodo dragon is a possibility, he says.

“I haven’t gotten to do it, but, eventually, we’ll see what happens,” Robert Nkemdiche says.

So it is with Robert Nkemdiche and Canada.

We’ll see what happens.

About the Author(s)
author profile image

Parrish Alford

Parrish Alford brings the cumulative wisdom that comes from three decades of covering Mississippi sports to Magnolia Tribune. His outstanding contributions to sports reporting in the state have twice been recognized with Sports Writer of the Year awards. Alford currently serves as the associate editor of American Family News.