Mississippi linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (4) returns an interception as Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson (8) prepares to tackle during an NCAA college football game in Little Rock, Ark., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. Mississippi won 30-27. (Photo/Thomas Graning)
Ten Ole Miss Rebels return home this weekend for Saturday's game (3:30 p.m., CBS) against No. 7 Georgia, including two of Gwinnett's own in redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (Grayson) and junior defensive end Cameron Whigham (Shiloh). Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze expressed the excitement level of the Georgia natives surrounding the matchup with the home state team.
"Some of them will have to calm down a little bit," Freeze said. "They're emotional kids, they're young, and they're excited about going back home. They'll have a lot of family there, a lot of friends there, brothers and sisters. We want them to do well, but you've still got to prepare just like any other game. It's no question that those kids, they had a little extra pep in our team meeting yesterday and are excited to go back home."
After redshirting last season, Nkemdiche has sparked a turnaround for the Rebels (5-3, 2-2 SEC), who are one win away from bowl eligibility after a 30-27 win against Arkansas Saturday. Nkemdiche led all players with eight tackles and recorded his second interception of the year. For the season, he leads the Rebels with 52 tackles and 9 tackles for loss, which also ranks sixth in the Southeastern Conference.
"There's no age, there's no perfect rubric for being a leader," Nkemdiche said. "If you want to be courageous and step up and lead by example, lead vocally, why not? If my teammates take that into their perspective and respect that, why not keep doing it and show up every weekend?"
Coming out of Grayson, where he led the Rams to the Class AAAAA state semifinals his senior season as a linebacker and running back, Nkemdiche originally signed with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College on National Signing Day. Then, after he made a qualifying score on his ACT to become academically eligible, Division I offers came rolling in, and he narrowed his college choices down to Georgia and Ole Miss.
"It was just where I feel comfortable at," he said of Ole Miss. "I feel like Athens, there's a lot going on in Athens. It's right there at home and you see the same people from high school every weekend. I wanted to branch off and venture off and see what was out there."
Nkemdiche also said Georgia offered him, but they offered late in the recruiting process, while when Ole Miss jumped on him, they stayed on him and that played a huge part in his decision.
"It was tough just because of all the pressure at home," he said. "Everybody was telling me, you know, 'C'mon UGA is right here. I'll be able to come up and see you every weekend.' I just felt like I should go with what I felt was right and make the right decision for me -- and not them -- and that's what I did. Right now, I feel like I made the right decision."
Saturday's game against Georgia (7-1, 5-1 SEC) carries special meaning for Nkemdiche. He said this was the first game he circled and put a bull's-eye on.
"This is one of the key games I've been waiting for all year," he said. "Playing the teams we did earlier, it's hard to not focus on this game. Going back to 25 minutes away from my house and high school with all my friends and family in the stands, it's going to be an unreal feeling."
Whigham, a two-sport standout at Shiloh, originally signed with the Rebels in the class of 2009 but did not enroll at Ole Miss until a year later. He chose Ole Miss over offers from Auburn and Central Florida, becoming the first Division I signee for the Generals since David Pollack in 2001.
After greyshirting in 2009 and playing in 15 games as a reserve in 2010 and 2011, Whigham has started the last seven games at defensive end for the Rebels. On the season, he has 18 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Whigham is excited to return home and play against a school that he said gave him a look, but didn't offer him.
"It's a big game," Whigham said. "I feel like I have to prove something just because it's my home, and I just want to go out there and have a good game. I'm going to have a lot of family and friends there. I just want to go out there, do my best and hope to get this win."