David Fox Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Tom Savage is about 18 months removed from driving 80 miles from his Pennsylvania home to watch Rutgers spring practices from the sideline as a high school senior.
Now, he's the dean of Big East quarterbacks.
Savage, a sophomore, isn't the oldest quarterback in his conference, but he's started more games than anyone else he'll face in a Big East game this season. Eleven starts are all it takes to be the wily veteran in this league this season.
Savage's development will be a theme for the upcoming season. Most preseason magazines have pegged Rutgers in the middle of the Big East - Rivals.com picked the Scarlet Knights fifth - but the top six teams in the league look to be competitive. At least Savage will face the challenge against a backdrop of youth, both in the league and on his team. Of the 85 scholarship players on Rutgers' roster, 63 have used two years or fewer of their eligibility.
"It's easier to lead on a young team when you're young," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "We're a young football team."
Savage and sophomore wide receiver Mohamed Sanu give Rutgers the ability to stretch opposing defenses with the passing game. Without a star running back, Rutgers needs this duo to put up big numbers to win.
A four-star recruit in 2009, Savage became the first marquee prep quarterback to sign with Schiano. He won eight games and passed for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman, but he's learning how to be the face of the team on the fly.
"When you're a freshman, you've got to earn your respect," Savage said. "This year, I can take control a little bit more. I can speak up when I have some stuff on my chest. And I still have a lot to work on football-wise."
His best asset might not be his big arm; instead, it might be his even-keeled demeanor. His steady attitude has endeared him to his teammates, and it could serve him well in dealing with off-field distractions.
A former assistant in the NFL and at Miami and Penn State, Schiano said the media presence at Rutgers is nearly as formidable as his previous coaching stops. The Scarlet Knights aren't going to beat out the Yankees for a spot on the back page of the New York tabloids, but a cadre of print, television, radio and online outlets from the New York-New Jersey markets cover Rutgers on a daily basis.
Experience not required
Only a sophomore, Rutgers' Tom Savage has more starting experience than any quarterback in the Big East. Here's a look at the number of career starts for quarterbacks in the conference.
The volume of the media market is one challenge. The other is the tone of the coverage, Schiano said. "The media in New York area cover college teams as if they're pro teams. But they're not - they're kids," he said.
If anyone knows this, it's Savage's predecessor, Mike Teel. Teel, recently cut by the New England Patriots, passed for a school-record 9,383 yards and won a school-record 29 games, but he was not the most appreciated Scarlet Knight despite those numbers. When the Knights lost five of their first six in 2008, fans at Rutgers Stadium booed him, and coverage wasn't exactly complimentary.
Teel rebounded and guided Rutgers on a seven-game winning streak to cap his career.
"Talk about seeing both sides of the coin," Schiano said. "Mike won more games than anyone here, but he almost got run out of Dodge. That's the way it goes."
If Savage's temperament doesn't help him ride through the highs and the lows of the job and the spotlight, maybe Teel's counsel will. Savage and Teel got to know each other throw the recruiting process and remain in touch, talking about once a week.
"It was Mike's poise and his leadership [that impressed me]," Savage said. "He was a great ballplayer. He knew how to take the team under him and move the ball down the field. It was just poise and being able to shed things off and keep moving forward."
Rutgers opened last season against Cincinnati and started senior Dom Natale at quarterback. When the game got away from the Scarlet Knights, Savage took over. He was 15-of-23 for 135 yards and a touchdown in mop-up duty of a 47-15 loss, but the most important development was the boost to his confidence.
"The Cincinnati game, I can't even remember it, that's how nervous I was," said Savage, who started every game but one - because of injury - after the opener. "It was a good experience to get thrown out there against one of the best teams in the country. I thought if I can do it against them, I can do it against anyone."
If Savage started to feel confident in his first game, Schiano was fully convinced in Savage's first league road start. On Oct. 31, Connecticut led 24-21 when Rutgers took over at its 19 with 33 seconds left. On first down, Savage laced a pass over UConn cornerback Robert McClain and into wide receiver Tim Brown's hands. Brown caught the pass at Rutgers' 37 and ran it the rest of the way for the game-winning 81-yard touchdown.
"He came in when we were in a bad spot and he kept his cool," Schiano said. "When he throws that pass in the Connecticut game, that really gave him legitimacy around here."
The 28-24 win over the Huskies was only one game, but few quarterbacks in the Big East this season can say they led a team to a conference win on the road. Rutgers hopes that kind of experience makes Savage that much more dangerous in 2010.
"You're going to see a guy who's willing to take a chance with what we're doing," Schiano said. "He's not going to be afraid."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.