Saivion Smith’s football-playing goal was simple: He wanted to be a five-star quarterback starting for his beloved Florida Gators.
“My whole room was painted orange,” he said. “I promise.”
Days before Wednesday’s big day — national signing day — Smith is not a five-star quarterback. He’s a five-star player — at least according to Scout.com — at cornerback.
He’s not playing for Florida, either. He’s enrolled already at LSU.
“We’re LSU Tigers now, man,” his father, Anthony, said. “Purple and gold through and through.”
Smith, a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder from Florida, is one of the headliners of the Tigers’ top-ranked 2016 signing class. Smith won’t hold a signing day ceremony or make a televised announcement on national signing day. He and four others enrolled early at LSU a few weeks ago and will participate in spring practice.
But don’t let Wednesday’s fireworks overshadow Smith’s inclusion in this class. He’s the second-highest-ranked recruit in the group, trailing Neville defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence and landing a few notches above Texas safety Eric Monroe.
Each class has its headliners. In 2014, they were running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Malachi Dupre. Last year, defensive back Kevin Toliver, receiver Tyron Johnson and lineman Maea Teuhema led the group.
There was Tre’Davious White and Kendell Beckwith in 2013, Kwon Alexander and Danielle Hunter in 2012 and Jarvis Landry, La’el Collins and Anthony Johnson in 2011.
Smith is one of this year’s highly touted hopefuls, and he has already joined the Tigers — attending classes, team meetings and workouts ahead of spring drills.
“I’m trying to play early,” Smith said a day before starting classes Jan. 13. “That’s why I came early. Get ahead. Get that work in, learn how things work, learn the playbook and all of that. Coach said, ‘Learn the playbook. Show me you can perform, you’ll get on the field.’
“(Secondary coach Corey Raymond) says he wants to start me off on the inside (at nickelback) so I’ll learn the speed of the game, and then he’ll move me out there.”
Guarding receivers is not exactly what Smith always hoped to do. He played quarterback (and some safety) for much of his early football career. His focus turned to defensive back as a freshman in high school, when he was thrust into a game for an injured player.
“We were playing a powerhouse in our town. They haven’t lost a game in four years,” Anthony Smith said. “They shoved Saivion out there.”
The starting cornerback for Lakewood High injured and his backup struggling, the coaches inserted a 150-pound 15-year-old.
“My uncle put me out there,” Saivion said. “He was the DBs coach. He was like, ‘You got to go.’ Next week, another corner got hurt, and I had to go out there again.”
That was the start of his path to becoming one of the nation’s most sought-after defensive backs. Most of the major programs offered him scholarships: Florida, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia, Miami, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas.
He spurned the in-state Gators and Seminoles, his other two finalists. Why?
“It was a business decision,” he said. “Best move for me.”
LSU’s history of producing some of football’s best defensive backs — the program is often referred to as D-B-U — was the business behind that decision.
“It’s D-B-U,” Smith said. “Got Pat (Peterson). Morris Claiborne. Tyrann Mathieu. All of them boys. It was big. That was a big influence.”
As recruitment heated up on Smith, he transferred from Lakewood to IMG Academy, a half-hour’s drive from his home in Tampa. IMG, a boarding school, is a magnet for highly recruited high school athletes, a football factory that specializes in training and tutoring athletes in preparation for college.
At IMG, Smith worked nearly each day against Tavares Chase, a four-star receiver committed to Clemson.
Smith played some receiver at IMG, he said, and he didn’t completely give up quarterbacking until he moved from Lakewood to IMG before his junior season.
Schools recruited him as a receiver and cornerback. Smith smiles at the suggestion of playing wideout in college.
“Too many 6-1 receivers out there,” he said. “Knowing what I know from receiver, I take it and use it as an advantage on the defensive side.”
He joins a long list of highly rated defensive backs to join the Tigers. Many of those players were recruited by Raymond, the former LSU star and NFL defensive back who joined the staff in 2012.
Since that 2012 signing class, LSU has signed 16 defensive backs. Ten of those have been ranked in the top 20 at their position nationally. This year’s class includes four more defensive backs in the top 20 nationally at their positions, one of the program’s best defensive back hauls in recent history.
Smith is on that list, ranked as the fifth-best cornerback in the nation, and he’ll begin competing in spring practice for a big role in the fall.
No, not as a quarterback for the Gators.
“I was a diehard Gator fan,” he said. “When I started being recruiting by other schools, had to put that fan thing behind.”
HEAD(S) OF THE CLASS
Cornerback Saivion Smith arguably is LSU’s best recruit in its 2016 class. Neville defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence and Texas safety Eric Monroe join him as the Tigers’ top three prospects. Here’s a look at the highest-ranked prospects in LSU’s past five signing classes based on their overall national rank in high school in 247Sports’ composite rankings (in parentheses):
DB Kevin Toliver (No. 8): Toliver started eight games at cornerback as a true freshman last season, emerging as a physical player who plays tight man-to-man coverage.
WR Tyron Johnson (No. 27): Johnson played in nine of 12 games last season, catching nine passes for 150 yards. He was the Tigers’ No. 3 receiver on passing downs.
OL Maea Teuhema (No. 37): As a rookie, Teuhema burst into the starting lineup in the second game of the season and never left. He helped pave the way for LSU’s backs.
RB Leonard Fournette (No. 1): A Heisman Trophy frontrunner early last season, Fournette set a host of school rushing records and has 2,987 yards in two years.
WR Malachi Dupre (No. 17): The ex-John Curtis star led LSU in receiving yards (698), catches (43) and touchdown receptions (six) as a sophomore last year.
LB Clifton Garrett (No. 28): The five-star talent transferred from LSU over the summer after a rocky freshman season.
DB Tre’Davious White (No. 55): The Shreveport native has started 35 of 38 games in his career and is potentially a first-round NFL draft pick in 2017.
OL Ethan Pocic (No. 58): The Illinois product started 25 games in three years, including 15 at center. Pocic, like White, is expected to be a high 2017 draft pick after returning for his senior year.
LB Kendell Beckwith (No. 75): Beckwith took over as the Tigers’ middle linebacker midway through last season and enters 2016 as one of college football’s best LBs.
LB Kwon Alexander (No. 87): Alexander developed into a speedy, tackle-hungry player who left for the NFL after his junior season and is now a starter in Tampa Bay.
OL Vadal Alexander (No. 160): An All-American as a senior last year, the 6-foot-6, 330-pounder started 46 of a possible 51 games at right tackle and left guard.
DE Danielle Hunter (No. 192): The rangy Hunter was drafted by Minnesota in the third round after starting for two years at LSU and finishing with 4.5 career sacks.
OL La’el Collins (No. 3): An All-SEC player and second-team All-American, Collins started his final 25 games at LSU at left tackle and now starts for the Dallas Cowboys.
DT Anthony Johnson (No. 5): Johnson left after his junior season despite a somewhat disappointing career. He was not drafted and now plays for the Washington Redskins.
WR Jarvis Landry (No. 15): A second-round draft pick after his junior year, Landry finished with 137 career catches, 10th all-time at LSU. He’s now a Pro Bowl player with the Miami Dolphins.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.