Robert Nkemdiche had a season to forget in 2016.
The Cardinals selected the defensive lineman out of Ole Miss with the 29th overall pick, but Nkemdiche only saw the field in five games and registered just three tackles on the entire season. The one headline the rookie made was when his coach Bruce Arians called him out for a lack of “maturity.”
One year later, Nkemdiche is back at the Cardinals’ facility, looking to right whatever wrongs derailed his first season as a professional athlete.
“It’s staying on the path of what I am doing, staying focused, trying to be as pinpoint perfect, not being on the [mental error] sheet and not making minute mistakes,” Nkemdiche said to the team’s website of his mentality entering 2017. “Keep working hard, take it day by day.”
According to those immediately surrounding Nkemdiche, the end has come into organized team activities with a different attitude toward the game.
Veteran defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said of the second-year pro, “He’s changed. For the good. He’s changed.
“I’m very proud of him. I’m not going to tell him to his face yet, but toward the end of training camp, I’ll probably tell him. Because I know he’s trying to become a dominant player. He’s trying to step up and make his name and make a role for himself, and that’s all you can ask of him.”
Nkemdiche’s defensive line coach, Brenston Buckner, was equally optimistic, but cautioned that attitude improvements in May don’t automatically translate to the regular season.
“People want football to be microwavable, Buckner explained. “Football is not microwavable, especially on the defensive line.”
The coach continued: “I told him, ‘Robert, you don’t have to be anything but the best Robert Nkemdiche you can be, and I’m cool with that. If you give me 100 percent of Robert Nkemdiche — not what people expect you to be — give me what you can give me, your honest 100 percent, I’m going to be cool.’”
Arizona’s players and staff can be patient with Nkemdiche now, as we’re in the pigskin doldrums of May. But come September, the Cardinals will be relying on the lineman to fill some massive shoes, literally. The hole left by Calais Campbell on the Cardinals’ three-man defensive line is notable and one that Nkemdiche, as a former first-rounder, is expected to occupy.
If Nkemdiche fails to get his game or his work ethic right by the season’s dawn, then the Cardinals will have to reckon with yet another failed first-round selection. But all indications are, as of now, that the end will get a fresh start in 2017.