Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche and Mississippi State's Chris Jones both entered college last summer as five-star recruits, the top two recruits in the country according to 247Sports and the top two strong side defensive ends in the 2013 recruiting class according to both Rivals and 247Sports. Nkemdiche was a much-lauded out-of-state recruit from the Atlanta area, while Jones comes from just 40 miles from Starkville. Their career arcs will be intertwined throughout their college careers in the Magnolia State and, in part, are a microcosm for the Egg Bowl rivalry itself.
Nkemdiche's background entering Ole Miss was well known, particularly given the high profile of his recruitment. His older brother Denzel was a late signee under Houston Nutt in 2011, but Denzel became disenchanted with the Nutt regime while red-shirting. While Robert initially committed to Clemson, his mother, Beverly, made it clear in an interview with rebelgrove.com her desire for her sons to play together in college. After Hugh Freeze took over for Nutt, Robert became the top recruiting target for Ole Miss, and a mother's desire for her children became reality.
Chris Jones, while a fellow five-star recruit, had a much lower profile recruitment on the national scale. Rated a three-star recruit by Rivals until January 2013, Jones was upgraded to a five-star and jumped to number 20 nationally (from outside the top 100) after all-star game season. Jones initially committed to Mississippi State in June 2011, but would take an official visit to Ole Miss (incidentally, the same weekend Nkemdiche officially visited Oxford), plus several unofficial visits to Oxford just prior to signing day. Rumors swirled that Jones would be a signing-day switch to Ole Miss, but he ultimately did sign with Dan Mullen's Bulldogs on Signing Day 2013.
After their freshman seasons, the career arcs of the two athletes were similar. Both were named to several freshman All-American teams, and they had similar statistics in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks.
|Note: Nkemdiche missed the LSU and Idaho games with a strained hamstring suffered against Texas A&M. All stats via cfbstats.com.|
As the 2013 season went on, both players were shifted inside to defensive tackle, and it appears that both will be starting the season at tackle. With both around 300 pounds, the move inside is likely permanent for both, but Jones, at least, holds hopes of moving back to defensive end. Jones was quoted in the Jackson Clarion Ledger: "I tell them all the time, I'm not a D-tackle. That's just the position I'm playing right now. I'm a defensive end at heart."
Nkemdiche started last season at defensive end, but was moved permanently to tackle after returning from injury against Troy on Nov. 16. For his performance in the Troy game, starting at tackle, Nkemdiche was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Nkemdiche seems content with his position shift, and is quoted in the Gulfport Sun Herald: "It's a big difference. People don't know how it is learning one whole playbook from the day you stepped in until mid-year and then having to alter that. My head was spinning. Now I've calmed down. I know my position, and I know I can dominate at the position."
After successful freshman seasons that saw both players meet their recruiting hype, both look to become dominant defensive lineman in the SEC. ESPN rated both players in their top 25 players in the SEC, with Jones coming in at number ten while Nkemdiche was ranked number 18. With both teams named as dark-horse candidates to win the SEC West, the emergence to superstar level could be critical to their teams' hopes to achieve that goal.