KENTWOOD, La. — Wearing thick dreadlocks and a dead-serious look, Shyheim Carter speaks softly. He’s an honor-roll student with two children — ages 2 and 1 — and a pragmatic outlook; the NFL is his primary professional goal, but if he doesn’t make it there, he knows a college education will propel him toward success in another field.
Step one on the four-star cornerback’s journey will involve competing against Alabama players who just won the national championship.
“They’re good,” he said last week outside his grandmother’s home, roughly 90 miles north of New Orleans. “But once I come in, I’m looking to go take someone’s spot.”
The Crimson Tide received strong contributions from two freshmen cornerbacks, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey, in its defensive backfield last season.
Both return in 2016, and coach Nick Saban signed a trio of four-star cornerbacks in February. Essentially: Winning a cornerback job this season will be tough business.
Still, Carter thinks he’s destined for the starting lineup in 2016.
It’s one of the primary reasons he turned down Ole Miss, whose coaches told him he could come in and “push” the Rebels’ veteran corners for playing time. He preferred the message he heard over in Tuscaloosa.
“Whoever wins the job, wins the job,” Carter said. “I want to hear when I come here: I compete with him, and we’ll see who wins the job.”
While he acknowledges a loaded Crimson Tide defense already has “everything,” Carter — 6 feet, 190 pounds — made it clear that he wants to upgrade it.
“One side of the field belongs to me,” he said. “Just don’t throw the ball over there. Whoever the other starting corner is, Minkah or Marlon or whoever, I hope they do the same thing.”
That’s a Deion Sanders thing, right?
Carter shook his head.
“Not like a Deion Sanders thing,” he said. “More like a Shyheim Carter thing.”
His college decision — Alabama over Ole Miss — was a stressful one. Carter originally committed to the Crimson Tide as a sophomore, but backed out last August.
The Rebels went with a hard sell, and reportedly climbed to the top of his leaderboard for a short period. Coach Hugh Freeze and his staff emphasized family; they could build an environment in Oxford that included Carter’s mother, grandmother and children.
A strong relationship with former Georgia coach and current Miami boss Mark Richt also put “The U” in Carter’s top three.
On signing day in February, Carter and his mother, Elizabeth, were almost too emotional to function.
“Me and him both was crying,” Elizabeth told SEC Country. “I knew where he wanted to go, but me personally, I don’t know if I could’ve made a decision that day. They probably would’ve had to hold it out another day. I don’t think I could’ve done it. It’s like I told him: ‘Somebody’s gotta get a no.'”
Carter’s announcement at Kentwood High was delayed by tears. Both he and his mother welled up in front of the student body before Carter powered through his monologue and made a choice: Alabama.
“If he could’ve split himself in two and play for Alabama and Ole Miss, he probably would’ve,” Elizabeth said. “I think that was the hardest decision he ever had to make.”
The Crimson Tide swayed Carter on a personal level. Alabama hired defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt late last year (“Shyheim loves him to death,” Elizabeth said), and hired assistant director of player personnel Sam Petitto — a Louisiana native who’s known Carter since the cornerback was in middle school — from Georgia in January.
Before that, the love for Alabama began with an obvious source: Nick Saban.
Carter became fascinated with the coach when Saban was at LSU in the early 2000s, and followed his career from Baton Rouge to Miami to Tuscaloosa.
When rumors swirled that Saban was leaving Alabama for Texas in 2013, Carter made plans to attend a camp in Austin.
“If he thought Saban was going somewhere, he was gone,” Elizabeth said. “I’m telling you. LSU wasn’t even top three. If he’d have went back to LSU, it would’ve been the No. 1. I’m serious. He would follow that man.”
While Saban began winning championships with the Crimson Tide, his future cornerback worked his way onto the national radar.
Vincent Sanders, who specializes in mentoring Louisiana prep stars, first saw Carter on the field when the future Alabama signee was in junior high.
The kid had speed, but he was rough around the edges.
“He was backpedaling, falling down!” Sanders told SEC Country.
But Carter also had a strong work ethic, and a year of intense training put him in position to stand out at his first SEC football camp: A visit to Tuscaloosa before ninth grade.
“I’m going to get a full scholarship at Alabama,” Carter promised Sanders, who added: “From that point on, I saw the way he worked, and I knew if we got him around the right people, the sky was the limit for him.”
Years later, his recruitment became a two-horse race between Alabama and Ole Miss.
Despite an impressive rapport with the Rebels (“Nobody can ever break that bond between me and the coaching staff,” Carter said), he went with the team that first courted him.
“It was just little small things,” Carter said. “Like winning championships. I understand Ole Miss beat Alabama the last two years, but Alabama’s been winning championships.”
He plans on taking his college career day by day. Goal No. 1: Get through the first day of classes.
Goal No. 2: Get bigger, faster and stronger.
“If you don’t come in and put in work, it’s not a dream school,” Carter said. “It’s only for some people. People that go to other schools, or people that’s at other schools, they really didn’t want it as bad as they say they did.”
“You have to want it more than other people,” he said.
More about Shyheim Carter:
- He’ll see his son and daughter nearly every week this fall. Sanders, Carter’s mentor, plans on plenty of trips to Tuscaloosa with the toddlers in tow. “They were at every game throughout my high school career once they were born,” Carter said. “After every game, they came to stay over here.” The kids are currently staying with their mother, one of Carter’s Kentwood classmates.
- Coaching turnover in the SEC shaped his recruitment. “The coaching staff was changing for other teams, like Georgia. I just wanted to weigh my options out, and waited for the coaches to decide where they were gonna go, or which coaches were gonna be fired. I didn’t want to jump on anything. So I waited it out until signing day.”
- His mom stayed out of the decision. “I’m not gonna play a down of football, baby,” Elizabeth told her son. “And I’m not gonna make no choices for you. If you make that choice and you go there and it’s not what you were thinking, then YOU made that choice. Not me. If I made the choice, he’d be like, ‘Momma, you told me!’ No. YOU make your own choice.” She did add: “I think he made a good choice.”
- Carter’s love for Saban revolves around basic concepts: “Discipline,” Sanders said. “Structure. Graduation rate. Teaching you how to be a man. You look at a number of players under coach Saban, a large percentage of them are successful in life as a man … him and coach Saban, man, they’ve got a great relationship. We’re talking four, five years strong. So in the end, it was an easier decision for him.”