Ryan Carter was going through the recruiting process as a lightly sought prospect in the summer of 2012, hoping for a phone call that would change his life.
The undersized cornerback was being recruited mostly by non-Power Five programs, but he believed he could play big-time college football, and was waiting to get word that he would get the chance.
In early July, Carter’s phone began buzzing with news that would shape his future. But it wasn’t because he was getting scholarship offers. It was because of an article written about his high school teammate and the No. 1 prospect in the country, Robert Nkemdiche.
Nkemdiche, who was committed to Clemson, was also being pursued by Ole Miss. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nkemdiche said that if Clemson offered Carter it was a “done deal” that he would play for the Tigers.
Shortly after the article was published Carter’s phone began ringing, but it was not the news he was waiting to receive.
“It was very, very hard for me at first,” Carter said. “When it happened I was a little taken aback because I started getting all these phone calls from people about this article with Rob and we’re a package deal and we’re only going to the same place together. It was very overwhelming for me at 18 because that’s not what I wanted. I never wanted to be on someone’s coattails.”
A FRIENDSHIP FORMS
Nkemdiche transferred to Carter’s school district in Georgia when the two were in middle school, and a bond was quickly formed. Even at a young age, Nkemdiche stood out as being physically superior to his classmates.
“We started becoming really, really good friends about seventh grade,” Carter recalled. “I’m in seventh grade like, ‘This dude is huge. This dude is massive.’ ”
Carter and Nkemdiche played basketball and football together, hung out in the neighborhood and even had sleepovers.
They remained close throughout high school and still are.
“Robert’s my best friend,” Carter said. “Me and Robert have always been best friends and we still talk to this day. It’s just a great friendship and someone I call my brother and best friend.”
Nkemdiche not only stood out to his classmates at an early age but also to college coaches.
He was viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by his sophomore season and was the unanimous No. 1 recruit in the country.
Nkemdiche played on a loaded Grayson High team that also featured running back Wayne Gallman and defensive back David Kamara. Those two were already committed to Clemson when Nkemdiche pledged to the Tigers in June of 2012.
Shortly after Nkemdiche committed to Clemson, Ole Miss offered Carter, whose other offers at the time were from Tulane, Arkansas State, East Carolina and Georgia State.
Carter appreciated the offer, but he wasn’t sure if the Rebels were genuinely interested in him or just trying to attract Nkemdiche.
“I just knew at that time that it wasn’t the right fit for me,” Carter said. “I knew if I went there I would just be miserable because some teams were just trying to get all of us together so they could get Robert.”
RECRUITING COMES TO A CLOSE
Carter wanted to play football for a Power Five program, but he also wanted his play to earn his scholarship.
“I was never trying to force a school to offer me because of someone else,” Carter said. “I was just a guy that wanted to play and show people that I could play.”
As Signing Day grew closer, it became apparent that Nkemdiche was going to go to Ole Miss and play with his brother, Denzel, rather than attend Clemson.
Nkemdiche decommitted from the Tigers in November before signing with Ole Miss on Signing Day.
As Nkemdiche’s recruitment shifted toward Ole Miss, Carter’s started moving toward Clemson.
The Tigers were showing interest in Carter when Nkemdiche was still committed and continued to do so after he decommitted. Some believed that Clemson was recruiting Carter because it wanted to win back his star teammate, but Carter did not see it that way.
“I realized I don’t need to try to follow Robert and go to the same place that he’s going to. I had a good connection with the Clemson coaches, and I tried to keep in contact with them and tell them like, ‘I’m a guy that still wants to come. I still want to be at Clemson,’ ” Carter said. “I tried to make sure I stayed in the ear of coach (Tony) Elliott and coach (Dabo) Swinney and let them know I’m trying to be a Clemson man.”
Nkemdiche signed with Ole Miss on Signing Day, as did his high school teammate and friend Kamara. Gallman and Carter went their separate ways, signing with Clemson.
“It was big for me to know that they still treated me as a recruit and as a man of my own,” Carter said of the Tigers. “A lot of colleges would have tried to put us all together and put us all to one because that story was written. But it was good for me to know that coach Swinney was really the one who believed in me. It was good knowing that they still wanted to recruit me as an athlete.”
Carter arrived at Clemson as one of nine defensive backs in the class of 2013, joining Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, Cordrea Tankersley, Adrian Baker, Korrin Wiggins, Jadar Johnson, T.J. Green and Marcus Edmond.
He was the lowest rated recruit Clemson signed and even some Tigers fans were questioning why he was offered a scholarship.
“I definitely had doubts when I first got here just because I knew I was a two-star recruit,” Carter said. “I didn’t know how it would all work. But I knew one thing I could control was my effort, I could control how hard I worked and just try to prove to the staff that I’m a guy that can play.”
After redshirting in 2013 and barely playing as a redshirt freshman, Carter got more serious about football.
“Going into my redshirt freshman year I had a really good camp but off the field I was not mentally where I needed to be, not making good decisions and just immature,” Carter said. “At that time I knew I could do it because I had such a good camp. It was tough for me to be sidelined as a redshirt freshman but it was also very beneficial for me.”
A STAR BEGINS TO FORM
The new mindset paid off for Carter as a redshirt sophomore as he appeared in 14 games, with two starts, including the Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
Carter had 23 tackles and two pass breakups in 2015 while helping Clemson reach the national title game.
“Like a lot of young guys, they come in and they’re lacking in a lot of things, maturity, size, understanding, things of that nature. He’s really, since after his redshirt freshman year, he’s really blossomed into an excellent player,” Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “He’s contributed since his redshirt freshman year in a variety of roles and has taken a lot of ownership in the program and kind of grown up right before our eyes. I couldn’t be more pleased with his production throughout his career.”
Carter was a starter on Clemson’s national championship team in 2016 and produced 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and an interception. He is the No. 1 cornerback for the Tigers this season and leads the team with four pass breakups.
While Carter’s emergence is a surprise to some, it is not to Clemson’s head coach.
“I don’t know why y’all think we recruit people that we don’t think can play. We don’t sign people here that we don’t think can play great football for us. We don’t sign those guys,” Swinney said. “That’s why we signed him, because we thought he could be a great player at Clemson. And would’ve committed him a long time earlier if it hadn’t have been for all the ridiculous narrative in the recruiting world of, ‘We’re only going to offer this guy and get some other player.’ We don’t operate that way. Those guys can go other places. We don’t operate that way here. We evaluate and we recruit the guys that we think fit our program, and we don’t care if they have zero offers or a thousand offers.”
REFLECTING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
Nkemdiche played three seasons at Ole Miss before being drafted No. 29 overall in the 2016 NFL draft by the Cardinals.
Kamara, who went with Nkemdiche to Ole Miss, transferred out after two seasons and finished his career at Tennessee State.
Carter can’t help but wonder if he would have been forgotten and also transferred had he followed Nkemdiche to the Rebels.
“I think back and I’m like, ‘I probably would’ve did the same thing,’ just because it was really never genuine,” Carter said. “They might’ve just wanted to land Robert and things like that. I thought Clemson was always genuine and interested in the type of man I was and the type of athlete I was. I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
Carter is still undersized at 5-foot-9, but he believes he has a future in the NFL.
He is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu and Captain Munnerlyn, smaller defensive backs who are thriving in the NFL.
Carter had a long journey to get to this point, but he is thankful that his life played out the way it did.
“I think that was the best thing that could have happened was me going a different route,” Carter said. “We were always just so close, and I think it was good for me to experience something else and not be under that wing of Robert Nkemdiche. I really thank God for that.”
Who: Clemson (5-0, 3-0 ACC) vs. Wake Forest (4-1, 1-1)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 93.1 FM