OXFORD, Miss. -- For the past few years, Denzel Nkemdiche has fought to create his own name.
When people saw or heard “Nkemdiche” he was barely an afterthought. The real excitement was reserved for his younger brother, Robert Nkemdiche, who was the best high school football player in the country last year.
It was hard for Denzel to push away from the giant shadow his younger brother cast because people went to their games to see the youngster.
Robert was the next big thing. Robert had the one-way ticket to fame.
But Denzel's thirst to make his own path and create his own story fueled him when he made his way to Ole Miss and eventually onto the playing field.
While Robert's fame grew as a senior at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., Denzel played his way to an SEC All-Freshman year.
His younger brother, who is now on Ole Miss’ campus as well, might still generate more excitement and hype, but Denzel did everything he could in his first year of playing college ball to finally push further away from his brother’s shadow.
“I couldn’t be denied at all,” said Denzel, who registered a team-high 82 tackles and 13 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman in 2012. “I couldn’t be defeated.”
Denzel didn’t want any part of his brother’s recruitment in high school. He wasn’t the biggest, fastest or most talented player, but Denzel didn’t want his brother creating offers for him.
Grade issues almost forced Denzel to go the junior college route, but after getting his academics in order late, he looked to become a late signee in the 2011 recruiting class.
One thing that he offered schools was his versatility, with him playing defensive back his junior year and outside linebacker his senior year.
Ole Miss was on him for a while because of that, but schools like Georgia, Mississippi State and Miami pursued late. His grades certainly were a factor, but Denzel believed his brother was too, after Robert claimed he wanted to play wherever his older brother went.
That drew red flags in recruiting, especially when Georgia reached out. Denzel was weary of the hometown team because he felt Georgia’s interest stemmed from a potential packaged deal with his brother.
“I knew for a fact that one of the main reasons they were offering me [was] because Robert said he was going to go play wherever I played,” Denzel said. “I knew they were taking that into perspective and I felt like they were going to do either a grayshirt or a redshirt thing for me and I wasn’t going to get the chance that I needed to show them that I could play.”
With Ole Miss, there was the chance to play early and very little talk about his brother, Denzel said. It was a fresh start, and after a visit to Oxford to see then-coach Houston Nutt and his staff in May of 2011, Denzel found a new home.
“I just wanted to get on the field and see where someone would give me a chance,” he said. “I wasn’t highly recruited so wherever I went it depended on depth issues. I didn’t want to go there and waste four years. I wanted to go there and have a chance to make an impact early.”
Denzel didn’t see the field in 2011, as he moved to the hybrid linebacker/safety “Husky” position. The movement continued when Hugh Freeze took over after Nutt was fired during the 2011 season, as he went from Husky to free safety to rover safety before settling at “Stinger” linebacker.
Still not the biggest or fastest, Denzel tried to be the smartest. All that moving helped him understand the game and each position more. He was able to see plays before they happened, he knew where teammates should be and he consistently beat linemen to the ball.
His breakout game came in the loss to Alabama in late September when he earned SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors after registering 11 tackles, three for loss, including a sack, and two forced fumbles.
As the season went on, “Denzel Nkemdiche” started to mean more than just “Robert’s brother.” It had its own placement and its own buzz.
Denzel asked for his own path; now he’s on it.
“I can’t take steps behind,” he said. “I have something to live up to; I have expectations to meet. I have a season ahead of me where I have to do better than the season I had last year or I’m taking steps backwards.
“I know that, and I’m ready for the challenge.”