The defensive tackle was suspended for the Allstate Sugar Bowl after a possession of marijuana charge in mid-December, leaving his teammates with a massive hole to fill – both on the field and emotionally.
“Everyone wants to be around him,” said defensive back Mike Hilton. “He talks to everybody and he’s somebody you want to have in your circle. He’s one of our leaders and is just a junior. We really follow him and the plays he made, the things he did on the field for us. He was a good one for us and I wish him the best.”
Hilton continued on to iterate that though they would miss the play of their standout defensive tackle, there would be playmakers available to negate the void.
“Next man up,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for some guy to step in and go out and perform on Friday. Of course, we would all love for Robert to be out there especially on the back end and the pressure he can get for us. But, it’s next man up and a chance for someone to show their ability.”
It is not the first time this season the Rebels have had to play without Nkemdiche, and there was little dropoff in production the last time around.
“It’s sad to see that situation and obviously he’s not playing with us but it is ‘next man up.’,” assured defensive end John Youngblood. “I feel like (defensive tackle) Breelan Speaks has really done a great job. Robert didn’t play because he had a concussion one week and Breelan really stepped up and played great for us. Breelan is finding his groove and really maturing and is going to be a great player for us.”
For their part, Oklahoma State isn’t reading too far into the loss either.
“He’s a heck of a football player,” said lineman Zach Crabtree. “But to be honest with you, I said it when we found out that that defensive line is still very good. It goes far beyond him. They have great backups, great ends, and other good defensive tackles. He’s a big time player that makes a lot of plays, but they have a lot of other guys that make plays too.”
The rhetoric from both teams is inspiring confidence and preparation with the primetime matchup looming so close, but it still remains to be seen just how effectively the Rebels can replace the dominating presence of the All-SEC lineman.