Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Rutgers sophomore Tom Savage.
• Typecasting. Savage was a hot enough prospect in 2009 that most of the stories about his recruitment went along the lines of "He seriously committed/signed with Rutgers," thanks to persistent overtures from Penn State, Tennessee, Georgia, Miami, et al. long after he'd pledged to the Scarlet Knights as a junior. At any of those places, Savage might have been able to settle into a backup role, largely out of the spotlight; in Piscataway, he ranked alongside prototype left tackle Anthony Davis as the most celebrated recruit in school history and drew instant comparisons to John Elway before his first game.
In terms of size, arm strength and general pocket presence (if not mobility -- see below), Savage obviously has the physical tools to meet the less outrageous levels of advance hype. He showed up last summer looking very NFL-esque at 6'5"/225 pounds, and needed all of two quarters to cement his status as the heir apparent to all-time passing leader Mike Teel after senior Dom Natale served up three interceptions on the last four possessions of the first half in a disastrous debut against Cincinnati. (The freshman certainly caught the eye of then-Bearcat coach Brian Kelly, who was caught by ESPN mikes before the game asking Rutgers' Greg Schiano [paraphrased], "That kid looks pretty good. Are we going to be seeing any of him?" Yes, as it turned out, but not before the game was well out of hand.) Savage started all but one game the rest of the season, went 8-3 as a starter and stands to emerge as the best passer in the Big East in his second year -- if only by default, and only if his development helps lift the Knights' offense out of the conference cellar.
• At his best ... Savage already shows a good deal of confidence and polish as a prototypical "stand and deliver" slinger. The better contemporary NFL comparison would probably be to ex-Heisman winner/current Cincinnati Bengal Carson Palmer: Everything about Savage's size and full complement of throws to almost anywhere on the field seems to scream "future draft pick" if he can put the pieces together more consistently over the next two or three years. There aren't many college quarterbacks of any class who could reasonably expect to put the ball where Savage did on the biggest play of his freshman season, an 81-yard touchdown pass to stun UConn in the final minute:
Even without a feature tailback in the zip code of former 2,000-yard workhorse Ray Rice, Rutgers remained a heavily run-first team, handing off almost 60 percent of the time (65 percent in wins) and generally keeping Savage out of trouble whenever possible -- he attempted 30 passes only twice, in a Friday-night loss against Pittsburgh (39 attempts) and a Thursday-night blowout over South Florida (30). But he quickly showed a propensity for getting the ball downfield, especially off play-action, averaging 15 yards per completion and hitting at least one pass for 30 yards in ten of his eleven starts. He closed with a season-high 294 yards along with a pair of touchdowns against Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl, his third multi-touchdown game since Halloween.
• At his worst ... Savage isn't exactly a statue -- he can roll out on bootleg passes without any visible awkwardness and pull it down from time to time if necessary -- but he's certainly no scrambler, a limitation that came into very clear focus behind one of the most porous offensive lines in the country: Savage was sacked 35 times, more than any other quarterback in the Big East, and occasionally looked like a sitting duck; Syracuse alone dropped him nine times, forcing his worst game (7-of-17 for 66 yards with two interceptions, no touchdowns) in a 31-13 stunner, the Orange's only conference win of the season.
Such a flop against the league's resident bottom-dweller, so late in the year -- followed by an equally rough outing against West Virginia (9-of-27, 153 yards, 2 INTs, 1 TD) in the regular season finale two weeks later -- was a sobering reminder that Savage's tremendous potential remains just potential to date. The Knights finished dead last in the conference in total offense and next-to-last in both passing yards and efficiency, even if you include fish-in-a-barrel wins over two I-AA teams (Howard and Texas Southern) and perpetual Sun Belt laughingstock Florida International. Savage's best games came when the deck was stacked in his favor, when dominating efforts by the defense (as in the 31-0 demolition of USF) or running game (as in the 239-yard, four-touchdown effort on the ground in a 34-14 win at Louisville) kept the entire playbook open. Clearly, though, even at the end of the year, it was never "his" offense.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Savage is a hunter -- he reportedly took down an eight-point buck as a 12-year-old to win a "biggest buck" contest on his first time out -- and in fact it may have been his dad's hunting relationships that helped solidify his commitment to Schiano, according to a Sports Illustrated profile during Savage's senior season:
The family has not blinked since choosing Rutgers. A newspaper report saying that [Schiano's] contract contains a clause allowing him to leave without financial penalty if the stadium expansion, which will add 14,000 seats, is not finished by the 2009 season, does not faze them. (Rutgers A.D. Robert Mulcahy has since denied the deal exists.) They are similarly unaffected by suggestions that Schiano, who spent seven seasons in Happy Valley as a graduate assistant and assistant coach, would consider the Penn State job if and when Joe Paterno retires. Savage's father, who hunts with six Penn State season ticket holders, dismisses such talk as speculative.
He's right so far: There's still no end in sight to the JoePa era at Penn State, and expansion at Rutgers Stadium was scaled back in 2008 to add around 10,000 seats instead of 14,000, with no discernible impact on Schiano's status or commitment to a program he's essentially built from the ground up. It's a sensitive subject for the Savages, in particular: Tom's older brother, Bryan, signed with Wisconsin in 2003 on a promise from then-coach/athletic director Barry Alvarez that he would remain the coach. Two years later, Alvarez was the full-time AD and Bryan Savage was en route to a junior college in Kansas. In Tom's case, even if Schiano did decide to jump at another school, at least there's no threat on the depth chart that could possibly persuade a new coach to put the quarterback job up for grabs.
• What to Expect in '10. With the exception of a visit North Carolina, the non-conference schedule is an embarrassment -- Norfolk State, FIU, Tulane and Army all offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs to Rutgers' bowl eligibility by mid-October -- that should offer plenty of big-play opportunities (heavily aided by the running game) between Savage and fellow sophomore Mohamed Sanu, the offense's other breakout freshman last year. As the year goes on, though, a key indicator of Savage's development will be his ability to spread the ball around to different receivers after directing roughly two-thirds of his passes last year to Sanu and Tim Brown, who combined for 106 receptions to twelve by the rest of the receiving corps. And Brown won't be around anymore.
Savage likely won't get much better protection, either, with Davis bailing early for the draft and the graduation of veterans Kevin Haslam and Ryan Blasczczyk. On paper, the only prospects for a significant leap forward lie with Savage's natural progression from wide-eyed freshman to entrenched, maturing sophomore. Potentially, that improvement could be staggering, and it's frankly hard to image the Knights seriously competing for their first Big East championship otherwise: If Savage isn't good enough (or doesn't get enough protection) to take the reins from the determined but still very pedestrian running game the way that Teel did when the offense suddenly exploded over the second half of 2008, it's likely to remain a stagnant affair in the season-defining games that left him looking very ordinary down the stretch.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Kevin Riley, California. ... Chris Relf, Mississippi State. ... T.J. Yates, North Carolina. ... Landry Jones, Oklahoma. ... Andy Dalton, TCU. ... Garrett Gilbert, Texas. ... Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin.