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Kovacevic: Pitt facing a Savage reality

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 11:16 p.m.
PItt quarterback Tom Savage throws during practice, Tuesday, August 6, 2013, on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
PItt quarterback Tom Savage throws during practice, Tuesday, August 6, 2013, on the South Side.

On the 1,000th day since Tom Savage last touched a football in anger, he was one of two quarterbacks splitting snaps with Pitt's first-team offense on the first day in pads.

That was Saturday.

On the 1,003rd day since Tom Savage last touched a football in anger, a mostly blah practice performance by him and the other quarterback, Chad Voytik, prompted Paul Chryst to offer this one-word answer when asked to describe his passing game: “Sporadic.”

That was Tuesday.

On the 1,004th day since Tom Savage last touched a football in anger, Chryst formally named him the team's starter. In disclosing that to reporters, the coach, um, boldly declared, “We like what he's done to this point.”

That, of course, was Wednesday.

On the 1021st day since Tom Savage will have last touched a football in anger … yep, Florida State.

So how are those ticket sales coming again?

It's a scary thought. And not just as it relates to the grand opener Sept. 2 against the Seminoles at Heinz Field. We're talking about a full season of an offense that lost not one but two potent rushing weapons — Ray Graham to graduation, Rushel Shell to being Rushel Shell — and will rely on a 23-year-old quarterback whose last real football game came Nov. 13, 2010.

Savage was with Rutgers then. It was a home loss to Syracuse.

“Yeah, it's been a long time,” Savage was telling me after practice on the South Side. “Obviously, you want to be out there playing every year. It's been frustrating. But the situation happened.”

More like situations, plural.

Savage was an instant sensation upon arriving at Rutgers, at least as much as such a thing is possible there: He was the Scarlet Knights' offensive MVP with 2,211 passing yards, plus 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions. The yards and TDs were the most by a true freshman in Big East history.

The next year, though, he hurt his hand early in the season and was Wally Pipp-ed out of a job by another freshman, Chas Dodd. Seeing no future, Savage transferred to Arizona and had to sit out 2011, per NCAA rules.

By the time he got to Tucson, though, new coach Rich Rodriguez was installing a spread offense that didn't suit his drop-back style. Seeing no future, Savage transferred to Pitt and had to sit out 2012.

Now he's here. With one year of eligibility left.

“Knowing all that's happened, that it's my last season, yeah, it motivates me all the more,” Savage said. “I'm ready to go.”

We'll see about that.

Savage has the size, at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, plus the strong arm and skill set. He's your prototypical pro, really, carrying a commanding presence over the line and firing the football with a seeming flick.

Devin Street, the decorated senior receiver, glows about him: “He's finding us downfield. He's threading the needle. He's showing touch. He's making good reads. I think you're going to see a lot of new things from our offense.”

New, indeed.

You know, like actually throwing downfield.

The great unmentionable in this camp is that Tino Sunseri — now property of the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders and, presumably, being eviscerated round the clock on Radio Free Saskatoon — couldn't throw downfield at all. Thus, Chryst took an infinitely smarter route than Todd Graham in coping with Sunseri in that he condensed the Pitt playbook to passes not much farther than, oh, the length of Sunseri's right arm.

Savage can expand the field, and here's betting the Panthers will try hard to give him every opportunity. You get that from practices, where Street and mega-prospect Tyler Boyd are routinely running 25 to 30 yards down field. You might even have gotten that in a sly response from Brooks Bollinger, the quarterbacks coach, who addressed a question about a more ambitious playbook by simply acknowledging there might be “one or two” additions. With a smile.

Great. Sounds like fun.

I'm not ready to bury the 2013 Panthers, and no amount of Florida State dominance will change that. Sure, the opener is a matchup that looks a lot less balanced than the current 10.5-point spread, but it'll mark a monster way to welcome Pitt to the new conference.

I'll still look forward to seeing Chryst take his program to the next step, to Street and Boyd stretching the field, Isaac Bennett and — remember this name — James Conner grinding it out and, maybe above all, to Aaron Donald and Jason Hendricks tackling their way up the NFL draft boards.

And to this new/old QB, too.

It's only 17 days away.

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