When his phone rang early Saturday afternoon, former NCCU cornerback Ryan Smith wasn’t sure what he’d hear on the other end of the line.
A NFL prospect with a rising stock, Smith had heard from plenty of teams over the first three days of the NFL draft, but none of them were offering him spots on their squads quite yet.
“The Browns called me this morning before the draft even started to say they hope they could get me,” Smith said on a video conference. “I’ve been getting a lot of those phone calls.”
So when Tampa Bay called him early in the fourth round, Smith wasn’t sure what they had to say.
But the Buccaneers weren’t calling to talk about the possibility of acquiring the 5-foot-11 Maryland native in future rounds — they wanted him now.
“When they said, ‘Ryan, we’re going to make you a Buc, my heart dropped.’ I just, I don’t know what I did,” said Smith, who graduated from NCCU in December. “It was amazing.”
With the 10th pick in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft, Smith became the 42nd NCCU player to be selected in the NFL draft, and only the second in the last 25 years after Greg Peterson was also selected by Tampa Bay in 2007.
Earlier in the draft, Tampa Bay picked up another cornerback with first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves.
Smith was the second MEAC player taken in the 2016 NFL draft after South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was selected by Pittsburgh in the third round.
Since attending the NFL draft combine in February, Smith’s draft stock continued to rise. More than 20 NFL scouts attended NCCU’s pro day in March and he attended at least five private team workouts, including one visit with Tampa Bay.
After he didn’t hear his name called in the first two rounds, Smith woke up Saturday morning frustrated and disappointed.
“I woke up crying and got on my hands and knees and started praying,” Smith said. “I felt that frustration yesterday. I really thought I was going and I was disappointed. I’m only human so I really felt that. I kept the faith and when my name got called early fourth round, (my mom) just started crying. She was hugging me for five minutes. Really embraced the moment.”
Growing up as a basketball addict, Smith never had dreams of playing in the NFL. But thanks in part to genetics and his mother’s insistence that he play football with his younger brother Tre, Smith eventually gave up his basketball dreams in favor of the gridiron.
“I wanted to play basketball,” he said. It was just my love, but as you get older, I’m not that tall. I’m only 6 feet. I didn’t have a big chance to play basketball so football took over, and I loved everything about it.”
Because he only played one year of varsity football, Smith wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, and N.C. Central was the only school that offered him any scholarship money. But once he got to Durham, Smith turned a partial scholarship into a full ride and became one of the most prolific defensive backs in school history.
Over the course of his career, Smith moved from safety to cornerback and finished with a school record 168 solo tackles in his four-year career. He was also one of the team’s best kick returners averaging 28.1 yards per kickoff return in in his senior season.
Smith’s versatility made him an attractive prospect for the Bucs, who said he would start working out as a safety once he arrives in Tampa Bay next week.
“They’re big on special teams,” Smith said. “They like my quickness, my burst and my attitude on the field. When I talked to them today, they said they were going to start me at safety. It’s no big deal … I’ve played safety before, it’s nothing new. They asked me how I could return and help special teams, I did that as well in college. I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m going to get right for real.”
Playing at a smaller school meant Smith wasn’t often in the national spotlight, and he was fairly unknown entering the NFL combine. But through hard work and determination, he was able to impress scouts and earn that draft day phone call.
“Nobody knew about North Carolina Central — I didn’t when I came out of high school,” Smith said. “But look what found me. If you make some noise, they’re going to find you no matter where you go. It’s going to be some doubts and you’ve got to work your way up through that, but that’s life. People are going to doubt you, but just stay positive and work and people are going to find you. Dreams do come true.