When you sit back and look at how far Ole Miss has come since Hugh Freeze arrived in Oxford, Miss., there are several players that have played pivotal roles in the turnaround.
However, the one guy who is probably the most important of all is star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
If we were talking about this a year ago, quarterback Bo Wallace would get the nod because he led Ole Miss to a bowl game in year one under Freeze. That ultimately showed enough improvement to help get Nkemdiche’s signature, but now, Nkemdiche is leader of the Rebels’ resurgence.
His play on the field has certainly made an impact, but it goes beyond the 94 total tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks he’s accumulated in his career.
There’s no denying recruiting is the lifeblood of any program in the SEC, and Nkemdiche’s biggest impact has come on the recruiting trail.
Freeze put Ole Miss in the limelight on National Signing Day in 2013 when he signed a unanimous top-10 class, which was led by Nkemdiche, the nation’s top-rated player.
The Loganville, Ga., native was a long-time lean to Ole Miss before making a signing day announcement, and his pledge to the Rebels got the dominoes falling, as the Rebels landed five-star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, five-star wide receiver Laremy Tunsil and five-star defensive back Tony Conner.
Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell are now projected to be top-15 NFL draft picks if they declare following the season. Conner was a fringe first-round prospect before missing six games with a torn meniscus.
The junior foursome has led the Rebels back to relevancy and changed the perception of Ole Miss football. Now, it’s not unusual to see top-ranked recruits choose the Rebels, and Ole Miss is on track to sign another top class this February.
All of that is possible because Nkemdiche started the trend and backed it up with his play on the field, and for that, he’s the one player Ole Miss should be most thankful for this Thanksgiving.