CLEMSON — Let’s get one thing clear, right from the start: recruiting is about relationships.
Building them. Cultivating them. Nourishing them. And doing whatever you need to do to keep them productive.
In that sense, nothing has changed with Clemson’s ongoing Robert Nkemdiche saga.
It’s just a lot more public – and, potentially, a lot more embarrassing.
For the uninitiated, Nkemdiche is a 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end from Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., considered the Class of 2013’s top overall recruit and one of the best defensive ends in the past 20 years.
Three weeks ago, he stunned the college football recruiting world by committing to Clemson and Dabo Swinney while on an unofficial visit.
He became the third Grayson player to join Clemson’s Class of 2013, joining tailback Wayne Gallman and cornerback David Kamara, who had committed to the Tigers a day before Nkemdiche.
Nkemdiche made it clear that playing with his friends mattered; Clemson has since added another Grayson player, quarterback Nick Schuessler, who signed with Mississippi State in February but will enroll at CU this fall as a preferred walk-on.
Here’s the question Swinney and his staff must answer: how many of Nkemdiche’s friends does he need to feel comfortable?
Friday, the franchise recruit ignited a firestorm across recruiting message boards in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Nkemdiche told the AJC that if Clemson offers defensive back Ryan Carter a scholarship – one that Carter would surely accept – his recruitment “is locked, it’s a done deal, it’s over.”
While Gallman and Kamara are three-star prospects and likely contributors, Carter isn’t such a sure thing.
He stands 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, and while he has an offer from Ole Miss – which just happens to feature Nkemdiche’s older brother, Denzel, on its roster – his other offers are from Southern Miss, Tulane, Georgia State and Arkansas State.
And if the Tigers don’t offer?
“If Clemson doesn’t offer Ryan, it would make me look at Ole Miss a little more, it would,” he told the AJC. “It’s very important that I have my boys with me.”
Nkemdiche later tweeted that “I don’t like the ajc twisting up my words” and then said “I Never said any of those things but I guess the AJC will do anything for a story and to keep his job !”
Sunday, he told the New York Times that he hadn't given Swinney any ultimatum about offering Carter a scholarship.
“I hope he doesn’t feel obligated to offer anybody a scholarship because of my commitment," he told the Times. "Of course I would want to play with (Carter). But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still go to Clemson.”
Nothing ties Nkemdiche to Clemson until he signs the national letter of intent on the first Wednesday of February 2013, so right now he’s trying to see just how much leverage he has with Swinney and Co.
It is a potentially thorny situation for Clemson. The Tigers have Nkemdiche in the fold, but they also have a finite number of scholarships to hand out. In February, recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott said that Clemson would sign only 11-16 players in 2013. Attrition, including the departure of heralded tailback recruit Mike Bellamy, increases that number to around 20.
The Tigers already have 11 commitments; in addition, a pair of 2012 signees – defensive tackle Josh Brown and defensive back Cordrea Tankersley – will attend Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy as non-qualifiers and are expected to enroll in January, counting against 2013 scholarship numbers.
So what is it worth for them to increase the package deal in order to lock up Nkemdiche?
There are two ways to look at it: Clemson is recruiting a number of top athletes like No.1 cornerback prospect Kendall Fuller, No.1 defensive tackle prospect Montravius Adams and No.1 tailback Derrick Green.
Many more top prospects considered among the top 20 at their positions are also considering the Tigers.
If you take Carter, do you potentially shut the door on a top contributor because you took a defensive back who is no sure bet to make an impact in the ACC?
That said, many of those prospects are interested in Clemson because of Nkemdiche’s Pied Piper effect: success breeds success.
Package deals like the one Nkemdiche not-so-obliquely suggested are nothing new; programs have hired players’ coaches and parents for support roles for years and will continue to do so. Four years ago, Swinney himself inked star Jacksonville tailback Jamie Harper, now with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, after signing Harper’s teammate Daniel Andrews, a linebacker who made minimal impact in his four years on campus.
Clemson must decide how much Carter is worth. According to Clemson’s website, the value of a four-year out-of-state scholarship, including tuition, room and board, travel fees and a mandatory laptop computer, is $168,000.
It sounds like a lot, but consider this: the Tigers received a $22.3 million payout (to be split with other ACC programs) for appearing in the Orange Bowl. Payouts are expected to increase under college football’s new playoff system, as well.
If he lives up to his potential, Nkemdiche is the kind of player who can help those appearances become routine.
With those stakes, one extra scholarship seems like a pittance.