Starkey: Savage earns respect
Tom Savage could have played this all differently.
The man had one season to impress pro scouts. He could have made Oakland quite literally a Pitt stop on his way to the NFL Combine. He could have been aloof. He could have subtly preserved his body by ducking more hits. Nobody would have known the difference.
Well, nobody but Savage — and he wouldn't have been able to live with himself
“Thirty years from now, I'm not going to look back and be like, ‘Man, I wish I would have preserved myself for the NFL,' ” Savage said. “The only thing you're ever going to regret is being a coward. This is what I'm going to look back on and remember in my life. If it works out in the NFL, so be it. That's a bonus. Right now, these are my guys. You just have to go out there and play for them and put your body on the line sometimes.”
Savage was something of a mystery when the season began. The only people who remembered his last game were watching Rutgers football in 2010, and who would admit to that? Nobody knew what coach Paul Chryst was getting besides a dead ringer for Nicolas Cage.
The book on Savage — at least the copy I received — was that he could make all the throws but wasn't real keen on the contact thing. Possibly a pretty passer who disintegrated the instant he got smacked in the chin.
That book was dead wrong.
Savage, as it turns out, willingly accepts his beatings and sometimes even seeks them. Like the maniacal, motorcycle-riding Cage in “Ghost Rider,” he has some daredevil in him. Take the play Saturday when Savage lowered his head and crashed into a 6-foot-6, 330-pound human destroyer ship — The S.S. Tuitt.
Savage (6-5, 230) is big. Notre Dame's star defensive end, Stephon Tuitt, is much bigger. Savage is slow. Tuitt is fast.
Tuitt got kicked out of the game. Savage is lucky he didn't get knocked out of the game.
“Honestly, I told him, ‘I didn't think you were getting up,' ” Pitt quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger said. “You've seen those before, where you get 'em in the side of the head. Those scare you. And that's a big dude (Tuitt). I was happy to see Tom get up, and a little surprised.”
So was guard Ryan Schlieper.
“He comes back to the huddle and says, ‘I don't think I can take another hit like that,' ” Schlieper said. “I was like, ‘Are you all right?' He said, ‘I'm fine, I'm just kidding with you.' One thing you can consistently say about Tommy: He's tough.”
Players want a quarterback who can play, obviously, but they also want one they can respect — a leader who says and does the right things. Savage is that guy. His linemen love him.
After a 19-9 loss to Virginia Tech — one in which Pitt gave up eight sacks — Savage told reporters that he has “the best (darn) line in the country.” It meant a lot.
“The line, as a unit, we weren't feeling too good about ourselves,” Schlieper recalled. “Then we got on the bus and read that quote on the Internet and said, ‘Wow.' There were a lot of mistakes from the line, a lot of times we personally got him hit, and he says that?”
The hard truth is that Pitt's in a rebuilding mode after the chaos that engulfed the program. There isn't enough talent yet. It's going to be ugly at times. But instead of separating himself, which he easily could have done, Savage has immersed himself in the struggle.
Bollinger, a quarterback for five NFL seasons, was impressed with Savage from the minute they met.
“He never tried to force it, as far as pushing himself into a leadership role,” Bollinger said. “He got to know the guys, took his time and was very authentic. The biggest thing I take is he hasn't been worried about himself. He's gone out there and laid it on the line.”
Still, Bollinger would sometimes prefer Savage to opt for discretion over valor.
So let's imagine the next situation: Five yards for a first down, and Savage leaves the pocket.
How does that play out?
“I'm going to make sure I get it for these guys,” Savage said, “and then learn to get down after that.”
Really? Get down? Does he think he will?
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.