Cardinals’ Robert Nkemdiche looking forward to being himself

Jun 7, 2018, 6:47 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2018, 2:34 pm

Arizona Cardinals' Robert Nkemdiche warms up during an NFL football training camp Saturday, July 29...

Arizona Cardinals' Robert Nkemdiche warms up during an NFL football training camp Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona Cardinals former first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche isn’t convinced he needed a fresh start with a new coaching staff.

“I got the fresh start I needed just going forward with a new year in general,” the third-year Cardinals defensive lineman said Thursday, “and another year under my belt as a player in the NFL.”

All the same, Nkemdiche likes what new coach Steve Wilks is preaching, on the field and off it. On the field, Wilks’ shift to a 4-3 alignment will allow Nkemdiche to play his natural position as a three-technique tackle. Off the field, Wilks (for now, anyway) is taking a liberal approach to Nkemdiche’s off-beat personality and myriad non-football interests.

“He has embraced that because we allow Robert to be Robert,” Wilks said Tuesday. “As long as he’s working hard and working towards the common goal of this team, I’m fine, and that’s what he has been doing.”

Fair or not, Nkemdiche carried the “character issues” label into the 2016 NFL Draft after a well-publicized incident in which he told police he was drunk when he fell 15 feet through a broken window of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Atlanta on Dec. 13, 2015. Nkemdiche hasn’t helped his cause in his first two seasons in which he has appeared in 17 games with no starts, recording just 12 tackles (four solos), one pass defended and one forced fumble.

Wilks wasn’t part of the staff that drafted the Mississippi product No. 29 overall, but Nkemdiche said any concerns about a new coach wanting his own guys were alleviated when he spoke to Wilks after the Cardinals hired him in January.

“It was on point from the minute we talked,” Nkemdiche said. “It was an eye-to-eye type situation. It was really cool. I respect him. I respect all the coaches I’ve had. I loved [Bruce Arians], all of them, but it’s just a new situation.”

When asked what it meant to be himself, Nkemdiche smiled.

“It’s a little attitude, a little edge,” he said, turning to Wilks’ promise. “Not put as many restrictions on me; just what it sounds like. Just not trying to take my game and condense it; really just trying to bring out the best and everything that comes with that — even if some things are unorthodox, or not typical – in all aspects of what I am as a three-technique and a defender and an athlete, really bringing that to light and letting that be what it is.

“That’s the kinds of things I like to hear because I know he’s behind me all the way. He wants me to grow and progress as much as possible and I’m going to do the job on my side – doing the little things, do everything I can do everything I can do in my favor to be where I need to be when the season comes.”

Nkemdiche has been running with the first team in OTAs. That carries meaning for him, even though it is just spring.

“Of course, because it shows belief and trust, and it’s like a genuine consistent trust,” he said. “They’re not trying to pick out little things. If there’s something you need to fix, fix it. If you make mistakes, fix it and keep getting better. It is a consistent belief of how they feel about me so that gives my mind an even better perception of how I feel about the situation in general.”

Nkemdiche is anxious to see what he can he can accomplish in the 4-3, which he reiterated will be more advantageous to his skill-set.

“Yeah, it will be because I can get more vertical and have less responsibility in a sense,” he said.

Wilks said he has been impressed with Nkemdiche during spring workouts, but he added a caveat.

“I think Robert is taking the next step,” Wilks said. “He does a great job of coming off the ball and penetrating. The one thing we emphasize across the board is about using our weapons and it starts with our eyes, hands, hips and feet. He does a great job on every play trying to master that.

“I’ve seen that improvement and I’m excited about where he is but, once again, it’s early. Once we get the pads on and see preseason games, we’ll see where he is.”

Nkemdiche knows that expectations surrounding him are high, but he shrugged off the notion that they are greater because he was a first-round pick.

“Regardless of where I was drafted, with the talent I have, I get held to a certain standard and if I don’t meet that it’s automatically under the bar,” he said. “It’s really just [about] me staying in my lane regardless of the time scale. It’s me staying consistent and true to my lane and my timeframe; me going forward and advancing with what I know I’ve been doing.

“I know I can, in the most humble, modest way of saying that. I know I can be dominant on a consistent basis throughout the year, only because of what I am going to do in the offseason to make sure I am consistent and I have durability to do that throughout the season and be the guy for the Cardinals and for my teammates, and for the guys who put the work in just like I do on a consistent basis in the summer and all year.”

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