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How Saivion Smith Became the Fastest-Rising 2016 Recruit in the Nation

Sanjay Kirpalani@@SanjayKirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystJanuary 27, 2015

247Sports.com

At this time last year, Saivion Smith was an unranked prospect with zero offers.

Today, he is the No. 1 defensive back in the class of 2016, boasts more than 20 offers and has the recruiting world at his feet.

This is the story of his journey to superstardom.

Smith’s nimble footwork can be traced back to a stroke of destiny.

In 1996, his father, Anthony Smith, was sitting in the Atlanta airport waiting on his pregnant wife, LaDonnica, to get off work to join him on a flight back home to Tampa.

He sat down at his gate and noticed world-famous tap-dance artist Savion Glover waiting to board the same flight. After he introduced himself to Glover as a fan, the renowned performer sat down with Anthony, and they prayed together for a smooth, healthy delivery process.

Just a few weeks later when his wife was in labor, they were struggling to come up with a name for their newborn son.

“I never wanted him to be a junior, because I wanted him to have his own identity,” Anthony told Bleacher Report recently. “That guy, the prayer and his name just kept coming up in my spirit. So that’s how I came up with his first name.”

It didn’t take long for Anthony to realize that his son would share his namesakes athleticism.

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Growing up, young Saivion was never too far from a football. Anthony and his brother, Marty Kennedy, coached local little league football teams in the Tampa area, and Saivion began shadowing them when he was just four years old. The allure of the gridiron instantly hooked him. When Anthony put him in a flag football league shortly thereafter, he was a natural.

Saivion’s passion for the game was so intense that Anthony recalls his son routinely wearing his helmet and pads around the house and even sleeping in a football-shaped bed during his younger years. He jokes that he must have bought “300 mouthpieces” because Saivion would continuously lose them.

However, a turning point for him came when he was in the fifth grade when one of his teachers asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His answer: a professional football player.

“His teacher laughed at him and said, ‘yeah right.’” Anthony recalls. “He looked at his teacher and said, ‘I’m going to be what I’ve dreamed of being.’ He may have been eight or nine years old at the time, and he just blew it off. He was a kid following his dream. And I’ve never been the one to dash my son’s dreams. I’ve always been supportive of him and told him that education comes first and athletics is second.”

He would go on to dominate Tampa youth leagues at several positions, including quarterback, receiver and corner.

By the time he became a freshman at Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, Florida, the coaches there were wondering where they should line him up.

Saivion preferred quarterback, but Kennedy—who was on the Boca Ciega staff as a defensive backs coach at the time—suggested that his nephew move to corner.

Another factor helped Saivion embrace his move to the secondary. His older brother, Tae Gardner, was a standout corner during his playing career.

“I grew up with my brother a lot, and he played corner his whole life,” Saivion said. “I just learned a lot from him.”

Kennedy used his nephew’s offensive background as a teaching tool to help him adjust to his new home on the field.

“I just thought he was a natural,” Kennedy said of the move. “He has great ball skills. He has great hips. He was on offense a lot, so for me, it was just about transferring some of what he’d learned on offense over to the defensive side of the ball. He knew what the offense was trying to do. From that standpoint, it helped him understand the position and his job clearly.”

Credit: Anthony Smith

It was evident from the get-go that he could be special as a lockdown cover man.

Saivion entered the 2012 season opener against area power Countryside High School as a third-team corner. The coaching staff had plans to let him get his feet wet on the junior varsity squad, but an injury to the teams top corner scrapped those plans.

Another defensive back went down early in that first game, which meant Saivion would be pressed into action immediately.

Kennedy estimates that Saivion was around 6’0”, 150 pounds “soaking wet.”

However, as his father wondered in the stands whether his son was ready, Saivion turned in a strong performance that set the stage for him to emerge as a potential star in the secondary.

Afterward, Anthony felt compelled to ask the head coach why he put Saivion in the game as a freshman. He laughs while recollecting the coach’s response, something he says he will never forget.

“He told me, ‘Mr. Smith, nobody else knew he was a freshman except me and you.’”

When the team struggled to a 0-5 start, the coaching staff made the decision to play Saivion both ways—giving him his shot to play quarterback in the process. Boca Ciega would go on to win four of its last five games with Saivion calling the signals.

Saivion continued his development as a corner one year later. According to Anthony, he became just the second player in Pinellas County to be named to the all-conference team as a sophomore at defensive back.

However, following Saivion’s sophomore season, Anthony’s desire to make sure that his son was on track to qualify academically for college led him to research a potential transfer to IMG Academy in nearby Bradenton.

“After seeing the academic side, touring the facilities, talking with the dean, talking with the teachers and seeing the curriculum that they had, I knew the football program was a no-brainer,” Anthony said. “It was a win-win for Saivion and our family, and it looks like it has turned out to be a win-win for the IMG program as well.”

Chris Weinke would certainly agree with the latter portion of Anthony’s assessment.

The former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, who is the head coach at IMG, knew exactly what he was getting when Saivion arrived on the schools campus.

“Obviously, we understood the magnitude of Saivion’s skill set and what he was capable of,” Weinke said. “The challenge always is, how do these kids take coaching. I can say that Saivion, as many players that I’ve been around, he’s a kid that is coachable, and he’s one of the players that has the best instincts.”

The move to IMG paid off in a big way for Saivion. He was a major cog for an Ascenders defense that fueled the team to a 10-1 record in 2014.

Per MaxPreps, Saivion logged 67 tackles, five interceptions and three forced fumbles. He also blocked three punts and scored six non-offensive touchdowns. Weinke notes that he had another two scores wiped away due to penalties and one discounted because of an inadvertent whistle.

His signature performance came against powerhouse and defending 3A Florida state champion Trinity Christian—a team with at least 10 players who have offers from Power Five schools, including 2015 5-star corner and LSU pledge Kevin Toliver II. Saivion was the most dominant performer on the field.

In a game televised nationally by ESPNU, Saivion recorded 13 tackles and scored two non-offensive touchdowns, per MaxPreps—one on a blocked punt and another by stripping 230-pound man-child Jeffery Holland and racing 46 yards for a scoop and score.

CLEVELAND - DECEMBER 30:  Chris Weinke #17 of the San Francisco 49ers looks for an open receiver against the Cleveland Browns on December 30, 2007 at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo By Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It was a performance that emphatically stated his case to be billed as the nation’s top corner in the 2016 class.

“He seems to find a way to be around the ball,” Weinke said. “He’s a big-play guy. He’s one of the guys that comes in early to our meetings and spends a little time with me and our coaches in our bullpen. He just loves football and loves being challenged.”

That monster performance resulted in Saivion gaining his lofty 5-star ranking, one that Weinke said he’s rightfully earned. Not only does he have the resume, but it’s his versatility and potential at the next level that have earned him his current status.

“In my opinion, when you look at the class of 2016, I’d be shocked if there was a better corner in the country,” Weinke said. “He is that good. He’s long. He can jump. He can be a Cover 2 guy. He can be a man-cover guy. He’s not afraid to hit you. He’s obviously made big plays for us on special teams whether its returning kicks or blocking punts or extra points. He’s all over the field.”

Saivion’s progression into a can’t-miss recruit has also coincided with the impressive work he’s done in the classroom. The 6’2”, 180-pounder reports a 3.0 GPA but mentioned plans to turn that into “a 4.0 or higher” and potentially major in sports management when he gets to college.

Powerhouses such as Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami and UCLA are among the schools garnering his interest at this point.

Weinke, himself a former stud recruit, knows what it’s like to be in Saivion’s shoes as a burgeoning star. However, he’s advising his pupil to continue to work hard while enjoying the fruits of the labor it took for him and his family to reach this point.

“He’s going to have an opportunity to go wherever he wants to go for college,” Weinke said. “I think that he needs to enjoy this. This is a high school experience that kids don’t forget. He’s been great. The fifth star has not gone to his head. He’s a great kid. There’s nothing about the kid that I can say that I don’t love. This is a special kid, and I’m glad that he’s here at IMG.”

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.