BRADENTON -- The secondary was a question mark heading into the season opener, but IMG Academy's football team has turned it into a strength.
The key figure in that lockdown coverage is Saivion Smith.
The junior might have 16 Division I offers, but that hasn't prevented the St. Petersburg Lakewood transfer from continuing to make big plays for the 6-1 Ascenders.
"I'm just a very competitive player," said Smith, who has offers from Florida State, Notre Dame and Florida to name a few, but hasn't verbally committed yet. "I came out here and nobody really knew who I was. I just had to let everyone know who I was."
Smith has racked up gaudy defensive stats through his first season with the Ascenders, who take on Jacksonville Trinity Christian on Thursday night in a game that will be televised on ESPNU.
Smith's line through seven games: three interceptions (all in one quarter), four touchdown returns, three blocked kicks, three pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 37 total tackles (five for a loss).
Simply put, Smith has been a beast on defense and in special teams for IMG.
"I think every now and then, a true football player comes along," said Ascenders defensive coordinator Joe Sturdivant, who was a two-time All-Conference USA defensive back at SMU. "A guy that grows up ever since he was a little kid playing backyard football, just has a knack for understanding the game. And I think that's the best attribute he has. He's a football player, knows where the ball is going to be, great instincts, understands coaching ... and truly knows the plays before they're going to happen."
Smith's football background has set him up for this big season. Growing up a quarterback has allowed Smith the unique vantage point at cornerback to see the field in a different light, giving him the ability to recognize plays developing on the fly before the ball is even snapped.
"I know where the holes are from a quarterback aspect," said Smith, who runs a 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and has bulked up from 165 pounds at Lakewood to his current frame that fluctuates between 175 and 180 pounds. "If they call a certain coverage, I know where to be. ... Hand signals are kind of universal."
Smith also has devoted himself to studying film in an effort to get better, while exuding a confident demeanor and light-hearted personality with teammates.
Both Sturdivant and safety Reid Miller compared Smith to Richard Sherman, the trash-talking cover cornerback for the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
"When he steps on the field, his total mindset changes," Miller said. "Off the field, he takes school seriously. He takes everything seriously. I think, for the most part, his work ethic and the way he studies the game, he reminds me of Richard Sherman. Just the way he plays and how he takes everything so seriously."
In the biggest game to date in IMG's brief two-year program history, Smith was a pivotal force in preserving a 36-20 victory over USA Today's No. 6 ranked team at the time, St. Peter's (Jersey City, N.J.) Prep.
Smith shifted the momentum with a touchdown-saving tackle on St. Peter's quarterback and Penn State commit Brandon Wimbush, before stripping and recovering a fumble later in the game and returned it into St. Peter's territory.
But neither Smith nor Sturdivant are content with what's happened so far.
Both are hungry for more success.
"There's always room to improve, and I'm going to keep challenging him," Sturdivant said. "I told these guys before the season started that on the pursuit of perfection, you find greatness. I'm never going to stop pushing him to be the best. Right now, I think he's ranked (the) number six corner in the country. To me, he should be ranked number one corner in the country."