Saivion Smith knew what was expected of him when he was called on to step into Alabama’s secondary in the middle of this season.
He’d been there before, when he played 10 games as a true freshman at LSU in 2016 and stepped up following a teammate’s injury. He’d also been there earlier this season, when he began the fall as a starter at cornerback for Alabama.
Things hadn’t always come easy for Smith, but he ended up right where he wanted.
“I wanted to be able to compete for SEC championships,” he said on Saturday. All around him, teammates celebrated the Crimson Tide’s victory over Georgia in the locker room.
Smith left LSU after the 2016 season and headed for a junior college. He had been one of the top cornerback recruits in the nation out of high school; he was the No. 2 junior college prospect when he committed to Alabama in 2018.
His arrival gave Alabama an experienced option at cornerback early in the season. The Crimson Tide lost its entire starting secondary from 2017, and there was playing time to be won. Smith started the first three games opposite Trevon Diggs at cornerback.
Then it ended abruptly. Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf beat Smith for a 75-yard touchdown on the Rebels’ first play on Sept. 15. True freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. came on in his place. The true freshman never abdicated his spot.
But during that game, quarterback Jalen Hurts found Smith on the sideline to rally his teammate.
“When I got benched against Ole Miss, he came to me and said ‘Keep your head up, stay positive. You never know when you’re going to have to go in again,’” Smith said. “So later, he had to do it.”
Smith would have to return as well, and he wouldn’t have to wait as long as Hurts. Diggs broke his foot in the season’s sixth game against Arkansas. Smith started the final seven games.
“Tre got hurt, I just had to step up,” Smith said. “I’ve been in that situation before, had to come in. I knew what I had to do.”
Even with its new pieces and injuries to Diggs, as well as backups Daniel Wright and Jalyn Armour-Davis, the secondary has held up nicely. Opponents have completed 51.8 percent of passes against Alabama, throwing 14 interceptions. Alabama ranks third in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game and third in opponent passer rating.
Smith leads the team with three interceptions. He was one of five players to receive the “Unsung Hero Award” at the team banquet last week.
“A lot of people doubted (the secondary) the whole offseason,” he said. “We still feel like we’re proving points and have points to prove. We’re going to keep working and getting better every day.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.