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NOTEBOOK: Nkemdiche’s injury raises questions about offensive use

MEMPHIS — It was supposed to be Ole Miss’ secret weapon. Saturday, it became a nightmare scenario.

Star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche lined up in the Rebels’ jumbo package to try and convert a third-and-1 early in the second quarter. The outcome was much worse than a failed conversion.

Nkemdiche rolled out to the right, barreling for that 1 yard, but was stuffed at the line. During the play, he took a shot to the head, lying motionless on the field for several seconds after it was over.

He eventually got up and walked to the sideline and eventually the locker room with the aid of the training staff. Nkemdiche did not return to the game for what was listed as a concussion by Ole Miss.

The loss of their star defensive player hurt the Rebels the rest of the way against Memphis, but his long-term status is the biggest concern for the staff. With an important game against Texas A&M this week and four more Southeastern Conference foes after that, the need for Nkemdiche on the field in a defensive capacity is paramount.

“You miss any good player that you don’t have in there,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “It always hurts to lose a good player and a player of that stature, but I’m not going to make excuses.”

It also brought to the light the fact that the need of Nkemdiche on defense should outweigh the need to earn 1 yard with a flashy play involving one of Ole Miss’ biggest players.

Nkemdiche has three touchdowns on the season due to his involvement in goal-line scenarios but hasn’t been used in any other offensive packages.

“You always think about the risk,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “You’re danged if you do and danged if you don’t. It was third-and-1, and he just got tackled on his head. That could happen any play. I don’t think you can operate out of fear of getting someone injured if it helps your football team.”

Speaks steps up
The defensive line was left with a huge hole to fill with the absence of Nkemdiche.

Breeland Speaks did his best to fill that hole. Speaks had six tackles (three assisted, three unassisted) with two of those tackles for a loss of 24 yards. It was the most consistent action the freshman has seen since the Alabama game where he rotated with Nkemdiche.

Since the summer, Speaks has been Nkemdiche’s backup and had been learning as much as he could from the junior defensive tackle. It paid off Saturday, giving the Rebel defense much-needed relief when there were not many other positives to think of.

“It affected us,” Trae Elston said of Nkemdiche’s absence. “But I think Breeland played a good game. He stepped up in that position, and I think he wanted to play with his heart.”

Injury report
Offensive lineman Robert Conyers, who’s dealing with a knee sprain, went out with what appeared to be a leg injury, causing that group to become even more thin than it already was. Mike Hilton also left the game and did not return due to an unspecified injury.