After some ups and downs with a season full of hype and expectations, a year of football is in the books for Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche.
That means it's time to grade the superstar freshman's first year playing under the bright lights on Saturdays.
When grading a freshman, the best things to look at are how he impacted each game, how he improved week by week as he adjusted to the college game and how he handled the hype of being the No. 1-rated prospect of the 2013 class.
Nkemdiche started in Week 1 and immediately began to make an impact. He showed his freakish athleticism by registering two tackles—one for a loss—and a pass breakup. He also showed his ability to carry the ball by converting on a fake punt.
Throughout the year, Nkemdiche moved around the entire defensive line and even lined up at linebacker in some games, making him one of the most versatile players on the team.
Four times this season, he registered four or more tackles in a game, including three times against SEC opponents. He often drew multiple defenders to try and stop him, as he was one of the biggest threats on the field.
Against Mississippi State, he again showed his prowess in the running game with four carries for 21 yards. That's right, one of Ole Miss' best defensive lineman averaged 5.25 yards per carry in a game this year.
This year, it seemed like wherever you looked, Nkemdiche was on the field making big plays for the Rebels. Although he was limited against Alabama and struggled to contain Johnny Manziel (who had over 450 total yards against Ole Miss), overall, Nkemdiche was one of Ole Miss' best weapons on defense this year.
For most first-year guys around the nation, the name of the game is improvement. There are always struggles that come with adapting to the college game, but learning and making strides is what defines a good freshman player.
Nkemdiche had a downswing midseason when he didn't register a tackle against Alabama, missed two games due to injury and was ejected against Arkansas. But he bounced back by registering 10 tackles over his last three games and even had those four carries for 21 yards in the regular season finale against Mississippi State.
But perhaps the best mark of Nkemdiche's improvement is how well he played in the Music City Bowl. Not only did he have a sack, but according to Ben Garrett of the Ole Miss Spirit, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said that the bowl game was Nkemdiche's best game of the year.
Clearly, the future is bright for Nkemdiche at Ole Miss. And the improvement he showed this season is proof of that.
Handling the Hype
It's certainly not easy being hailed as the top recruit in the country. But those are the cards that Nkemdiche was dealt and forced to deal with this year.
Overall, Nkemdiche handled the hype well. He played quality football through most of year despite missing two games due to injury, and he lived up to the hype of his ability by being one of the most dominant players for Ole Miss.
Probably his biggest setback was against Arkansas. That game saw Nkemdiche get ejected for violently shoving Arkansas offensive tackle Dan Skipper to the ground. Maintaining one's composure is part of handling the hype of being one of the most focused-on players in the country, and that ejection was a huge slipup.
The ejection hurts Nkemdiche here, but throughout the season he dealt with the hype just fine. He made freshman mistakes at times, but who doesn't in college football?
Nkemdiche proved this season that he is poised to be one of the nation's most dominant defensive lineman. Although he didn't put up gaudy numbers, he proved he's a versatile player, a freakish athlete and a great addition to the Rebels.
He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and finished the regular season with 29 tackles, two sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Not bad for a guy who just finished his first year playing college football in the country's best conference.