“It’s been rough. It hasn’t been easy, but anything worth it isn’t easy. … I don’t know if you know much about junior college, but it’s definitely not fun. … But coming to Alabama is a blessing.”
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Dylan Moses knows just how difficult of a position Saivion Smith was put in ahead of this season.
Most Alabama defenders aren’t completely comfortable in the scheme until Year 3. Moses said it took him 11 months to learn the defense, which he admits is “really not normal.”
“It’s stressful, but once you actually get it, it’s easy,” Moses said.
Moses contributed some as a true freshman before a foot injury late in the season, so there was time for him to get in-game experience before assuming a larger, starting role.
Smith, Moses acknowledged, had a much smaller window. A junior college transfer, Smith was thrust into the starting lineup after Alabama lost its entire secondary from the national championship run last season.
“Saivion is doing a great job,” Moses said. “I’ve been knowing him for a while. We’re good friends. I feel like he’s done great throughout the season, and this is going to be a great game for him to show out.”
Alabama safety Deionte Thompson, an All-American and potential first-round draft pick if he decides to leave early, said it took him until Year 3 for things to slow down.
“It just shows you a lot about his dedication and his character,” Thompson said. “Him being able to put in the work and learn everything shows what kind of guy he is.”
Twists, turns lead to Tuscaloosa
Fourteen games into his Alabama career, Smith will be counted on to help Alabama’s defense slow down college football’s most explosive offense when the Crimson Tide face Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Saturday night.
While others took a far more direct route from blue-chip prospect to Playoff participant, Smith’s road was full of plot twists, false starts and fresh starts. It started in high school, where he transferred from Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, Fla., to nearby powerhouse IMG Academy, just across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Bradenton.
Smith was a coveted recruit, the No. 5-ranked cornerback in the 2016 class. He signed with LSU, along with Kristian Fulton and Greedy Williams. Williams redshirted as a freshman before becoming a star the next two. Fulton played in 3 games as a freshman but soon after failed a drug test that nearly derailed his college career.
Smith played in 10 games as a true freshman after injuries hurt depth at his position. Smith was expected to compete for more playing time as a sophomore, but the secondary was loaded. Stars Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson were ahead of him and Williams was closing fast. Smith transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where he became the No. 2 JUCO player and the No. 1 cornerback prospect in the country and grabbed Alabama’s attention.
Smith said Alabama was one of his first two offers while in junior college. The Tide became his fifth school in six years.
“It’s been rough. It hasn’t been easy, but anything worth it isn’t easy,” Smith said of his journey. “Just leaving LSU and not knowing exactly where you’re going. Then going to junior college. I don’t know if you know much about junior college, but it’s definitely not fun. It’s definitely not LSU or Alabama. But coming to Alabama is a blessing.”
Alabama is every bit as thankful.
Another bump in the road, another hurdle cleared
The Crimson Tide needed Smith every bit as much as he might have needed them. Alabama lost its both of its starting cornerbacks after last season. It signed Patrick Surtain II during the Early Signing Period but lost out on prized recruit Tyson Campbell, who started as a true freshman at Georgia.
Smith joined the Tide during bowl preparation last season, and had somewhat of a leg up on other enrollees.
Fast-forward to December and Smith was one of five players to earn the “Unsung Hero Award” during Alabama’s team banquet earlier this month. Thehonor is given “to the player who has made significant contributions to the success of the team received the least recognition for it.”
That fits Smith perfectly. After being benched during the Ole Miss game, Smith could have sulked and become a distraction for the team. Smith’s role was reduced in favor of Surtain II after Smith gave up a 75-yard bomb for a touchdown on the opening play against Ole Miss. He lost his starting cornerback job, but stepped in when Alabama moved to its dime package.
Smith remained ready, and as Nick Saban likes to say, he continued to prepare like a starter. Not longer after, he was back in the starting lineup after Trevon Diggs went down with a season-ending foot injury against Arkansas. Smith has started the final seven games of the season and played well.
“He’s been somebody that has continued to grow both mentally and within the body of his position,” Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi said. “It’s been awesome to see his hunger to prepare. I think that’s something he’s gotten more consistent at is the preparation side of things and not just depending on his athleticism or talent.”
In Alabama’s homecoming game against Missouri, Smith intercepted two passes and recorded four tackles in his first action back in the starting lineup.
Smith led Alabama with 3 interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. He also accounted for 54 total tackles, 5 pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Smith played some of his best ball toward the end of the season. Smith established a new career high in tackles with a team-leading 11 total stops against Georgia, including 8 solo tackles. His previous high was 6, achieved four times, including against Auburn on Nov. 24. The total is also the second-most by an Alabama defender in the SEC Championship Game. (Chris Donnelly had 12 against Florida in 1993.)
“Saivion has done a really nice job for us,” Saban said. “I think that when he focuses on what he’s supposed to do and has good eye control and plays with discipline, he plays extremely well. That has improved throughout the course of the year and that has been very helpful in helping him become a very good player and a very productive player for us.”
Smith’s test won’t be easy come Saturday. Oklahoma leads the nation with 49.5 points per game. The Sooners average 324 passing yards per game, which ranks eighth in the nation, and average a nation’s best 11.6 yards per completion. Alabama is holding teams to 5.9 yards per attempt, which ranks in the top 15 nationally.
Their quarterback, Kyler Murray, won the Heisman, thanks in large part to throwing to outside weapons Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. Both topped 1,000 yards receiving and both found the end zone 10 times. Brown injured his foot in Oklahoma’s Big 12 Championship Game victory over Texas, but let there be no doubt: The ball will be in the air Saturday night.
Teammates have confidence in Smith’s ability to hold down his side of the field.
“He’s done a good job all season,” Thompson said. “He’s been a guy who has gotten better each game, and we’re going to have to count on him in this game. I’m proud of him.”
Smith is just excited to be back in his home state, where this journey began.
“Last time I played in Florida, I had a good game against Louisville,” Smith said. “Hopefully breathing that Florida air again will give me a little extra strength.”