Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks believes Robert Nkemdiche brings a lot of energy to the field. (Photo by Omar Soussi/Cronkite News)
Originally published Tuesday, July 31, 2018 at 04:54p.m.
GLENDALE (AP) – A crowd of reporters around his locker, Robert Nkemdiche was asked what he learned the first two years in the NFL.
“I learned I was terrible,” he said.
He was joking. Everyone laughed.
But, with a new coaching staff giving the big defensive tackle a clean slate, this is a big season for the former first-round draft pick to prove to the Cardinals that they were right to select him 29th overall out of Mississippi in 2017.
There have been no breakout performances, just a big play here and there – he returned an Eli Manning fumble for a TD last season – and there have been too many mistakes, including way too many offside penalties. In 17 career games, he has 12 tackles, four of them solo, and zero sacks.
He knows it is time to show he’s better than that or risk forever being saddled as a “draft bust.”
If the mammoth player – 6-foot-4, 296 pounds – harnesses his raw skills and attends to the little things, maybe he’ll even find himself starting up front.
“I try to stay away from the analogies of guys who are busts because everybody has their own projection of how they see guys,” Cardinals first-year head coach Steve Wilks said after the team’s first practice in pads. “In a short period of time of being around Robert, I think he’s a tremendous player. I think he’s locked in, he’s focused. I think he’s doing well and I think he’s going to be a good player for us this year.”
Nkemdiche won’t call this a make-or-break season, but he has learned a lot about what it takes to succeed in the trenches at the game’s highest level.
“It’s a big step,” he said of this coming season. “It’s not really technically pressure. It’s just me wanting to be good, me wanting to give back to these guys, and all the guys who put in work for me, and give back to the coaches, people who believe in me and really just resting that case and being the player I know I can be.
“There’s really no pressure, just ‘come on, take a step forward.’”
Nkemdiche has his quirks, including colorfully braided hair and a nose ring. He likes shopping at Goodwill.
Nkemdiche is not that stereotypical growling monster of a human that people believe play defensive tackle in this violent game. But he wants to be good and insists he is a severe critic of himself.
He blames his two unproductive seasons on injuries and “some things I could have did better.”
“Just being a more polished player, as in the whole perspective and really just growing as a dude, as a person,” he said. “It’s cool. Things have slowed down a little bit and it’s fun. I can actually see what’s going on. It’s not like a blur.”
He should take some solace in the case of Arizona teammate D.J. Humphries. The Cardinals drafted the big tackle out of Florida in the first round (24th overall) in 2015 but he didn’t even suit up for a game as a rookie— the Cardinals coaches were convinced he didn’t have the maturity yet to play in the league. But the next season he was the starter at right tackle and eventually was moved to the left side.
Injuries limited him to five games last year, but he has evolved into the Cardinals’ best offensive lineman and anchors that unit at left tackle this year.
Wilks has said he doesn’t mind players with a few quirks, that he would “let Robert be Robert” as long as he continues to work hard to get better. So far, so good.
The coach said after Monday’s workout that he’s encouraged.
“His commitment,” Wilks said. “He’s trying to do it our way. Change sometimes is hard for everyone and I think he’s embraced that. He meets a lot with coach (Don) Johnson. His energy on the football field is phenomenal and he’s trying to pay attention to details. You just got to make sure he’s consistent and concentrates and doesn’t jump offside. That’s one of the concerns.”
So it’s details, details, details for Nkemdiche, and, most importantly, some production when he’s on the field.
“Do it on Sunday,” he said. “When it’s game time, show up and play ball. It’s a very simple concept, just go out there and be a dog, be a disruptive force, play every play at extreme capacity.”
And don’t jump offside.