When asked by reporters about his freshman season, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche said he could’ve done better. Auburn's Carl Lawson echoed the same tune this spring, telling the media he was “a little disappointed” with his performance last fall. Both players played the majority of the season and both made an impact, but that wasn’t enough in their eyes.
The two premier defensive end prospects were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 coming out of high school. Nkemdiche followed his brother to Ole Miss, and Lawson stuck to his original commitment to Auburn despite a coaching change after the season. The expectations were high before either one ever stepped foot on campus.
Once they did, it didn’t take long for them to realize they weren’t in high school anymore.
“There were times I got double-teamed, triple-teamed,” Nkemdiche said. “[Teams] tried to come at me with different things, get me out of the game. It was more than I expected.”
“[I was disappointed] in how long it took me to adjust to the college game,” Lawson added.
In 11 games, Nkemdiche made 34 tackles, including eight for a loss, and had two sacks. Lawson played in all 14 games and finished with 20 tackles, 7.5 for loss and was second on the team with four sacks. Those would be impressive numbers by most first-year player standards, but not these two. They strive to be great.
Regardless of any stats, the experience gained from playing last season was invaluable.
“I don't think you can measure it,” Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. “The experience coaches talk about it all the time -- game experience -- especially for [Nkemdiche] in the SEC, to come in and really play a whole season in front of those crowds, in the bowl game and doing everything that he did, I just think that he's going to be that much better this year.”
That experience has shown this spring. Physically, both Nkemdiche and Lawson were ready, but it took time to understand the defense and its various schemes and assignments and know what to do in certain situations. Now, as they go through their first spring, they’re beginning to adapt to the intricacies of the college game.
“Having knowledge of the offense and defense allows you not to waste as much energy,” Lawson said. “If you’re all over the place, you’re wasting energy and you’re putting your time and effort in the wrong direction. Once I have a better understanding of what I’m doing, the game [will] come easier to me.”
The game must be coming to easier to Lawson because he has been one of the stars for Auburn through the first three weeks of spring practice.
“We have high expectations for Carl, coming off the season he had,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “You can just tell he's a lot more confident out there and trying to be a leader by example.”
The same can be said for Nkemdiche, who wrapped up the spring on Saturday with the Rebels’ annual Grove Bowl.
Kiffin believes both Nkemdiche and Lawson, as well as Mississippi State sophomore-to-be Chris Jones, are primed for breakout seasons in 2014. Jones posted similar numbers to the other two, as he finished with with 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks last fall.
“I think your biggest improvement comes in your second year from your first year,” Kiffin said. “For all three of those guys, they're all physically mature. When you watched all three of them play last year, they all struggled a little bit with technique here and there, but they're all clearly very, very good football players.
“I think this year you'll see all three of them playing with great technique and making plays all over the field.”
That’s good news for Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans, but not so much for the new, inexperienced quarterbacks in the SEC.