Robert Nkemdiche stood at his locker on Thursday afternoon with a nose ring looped from one nostril to the other and decorative clamps securing braids on his head.
He had on a white shirt which at first seemed normal, but upon closer examination was being worn inside-out and was actually the property of teammate Corey Peters. As a routine question-and-answer session with reporters winded down, Nkemdiche brought it some life, expressing admiration for a colorful button-up shirt worn by a media member.
“I have some shirts like that,” Nkemdiche said. “Thrift stores, I’m telling you.”
Nkemdiche is a former first-round draft pick who has enough money to shop on Rodeo Drive, but prefers Goodwill. He sports the nose ring during practices and spends off days feeding kittens at a nearby pet shelter.
Those anecdotes would be nothing but amusing if the Cardinals defensive tackle lived up to the billing his first two professional seasons, but he did not. Instead, it was fair to wonder how Nkemdiche’s eccentric personality would mesh with that of new coach Steve Wilks.
In the months they have been together, any fear of conflict has been assuaged.
“If you get to know me, I’ve got my little quirks as well,” Wilks said. “We all do. I try not to change the individual. I think Robert has embraced that because we allow Robert to be Robert. As long as he is working hard and working toward the common goal of this team, I’m fine. And that’s what he’s been doing.”
This is a big season for Nkemdiche, who is hoping to finally live up to his potential. He had a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the Cardinals’ final home game of 2017 but has otherwise been light on impact plays as a professional.
He believes the switch to a 4-3 base defense may help him accumulate gaudier numbers.
“I can get more vertical and have less responsibility in a sense,” Nkemdiche said. “In general, I feel like me as a third-year player as a collective, I’d be better going forward regardless.”
The most important thing for Nkemdiche may be a sense of peace. Wilks has been highly complimentary of him and there is no sense that Nkemdiche is on thin ice with a new coaching staff.
“It’s a genuine, consistent trust,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, if you do one thing’ -- they’re not trying to pick out little things. They’re like, ‘This is what it is.’ They’re stern. If there’s something that you need to fix, fix it. If you make a mistake, fix it. And keep getting better. There’s a consistent belief of how they feel about me.”
Wilks hesitates from anointing Nkemdiche a difference-maker, preferring to wait until training camp and preseason games to evaluate his worth. But there is a healthy dialogue between the pair, something that was borne early on in Wilks’ tenure.
“We actually talked in the offseason, and it was on-point,” Nkemdiche said. “From the minute we talked, it was an eye-to-eye situation. It was really cool. I respect him.”
The Cardinals have experienced their fair share of turnover since Wilks was hired, adding players who fit his mold. Nkemdiche is a holdover, but one who Wilks wants to see blossom. The best way may be to soak him with encouragement.
“I know that he’s behind me the whole way,” Nkemdiche said. “He wants me to grow and progress as much as possible. I’m going to do my job on my end.”
OTA Day Nine
Images from the penultimate OTA of the Cardinals' 2018 offseason.