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Savage surging as NFL draft nears

5/2/2014

Tom Savage could not help but laugh to himself about himself. For all of the surprises the pre-draft process annually has in store, for all of the unsung collegians who have risen up mock boards and become household names around this time every year, few have seen the kind of ascent the former Pitt quarterback has heading into next week.

One of the latest, and greatest, bits of hyperbole came last week, via an excerpt from a draft website that said some within the New England Patriots organization had begun to refer to Savage as "Tom No. 2, with Tom No. 1 of course being Tom Brady."

That would be Tom Savage of 7-6 Pitt. Discussed in the same air as, yes, that Tom Brady.

"Obviously those are pretty big shoes to fill there," Savage told ESPN.com, laughing. "He's always been my favorite quarterback, and I think that's an honor just to be even mentioned with him. But I have a lot to improve on. I have a bunch of Tom Brady posters in my room still, from being a young kid, and it's pretty funny to just be recognized, I guess.

"I don't know if it's true -- to be honest with you, I never read that article," Savage continued, still somewhat sheepish, "but nah, it's definitely an honor."

That a quarterback with modest numbers who spent time at three different colleges is even being mentioned in the same breath as the winningest postseason signal-caller in NFL history is nothing short of astounding. That the man who was sacked more than any other FBS player last season garnered an invite to New York for one of the deepest drafts ever is seemingly incredulous.

Savage politely declined the offer to visit the Big Apple, content to sit back at home in the Philly area with extended family and watch his future unfold on the small screen. Guessing just how long or short he might have found himself waiting in the green room at Radio City is an exercise in futility.

Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay has Savage as the fourth-best quarterback in this draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has him as the seventh-best. In McShay and Kiper's combo mock draft Thursday, Savage ended up going 39th overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In his lone season of eligibility at Pitt, Savage was elected a captain and completed better than 61 percent of his passes. He threw for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns with nine interceptions, though just three of those picks came during his final nine games. At 6-foot-4, 228 pounds, he possesses a strong arm, a quick release and makes sound decisions.

He celebrated his 24th birthday on Saturday, but his jagged journey -- along with a Pitt line that did him no favors last season, surrendering 43 sacks -- suggests plenty of room for growth, with Savage himself conceding that this past season was the first time he "really understood what was going on" under center.

"I think a lot of the buzz that comes before [the spring] he wasn't as much a part of because he hadn't played for two years," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "I think what he did in the season, the combine, individual workouts, it's been great to see. Hopefully everyone is right and his stock is rising."

Savage stayed in Pittsburgh following the Panthers' pro day to work out for visiting clubs, and he has taken more than a season's worth of trips to different NFL facilities in the last two months. Having met or worked out with upward of 25 teams, he and his agent, Neil Schwartz, had to turn away potential suitors.

Savage's rise, it would seem, does have its bounds.

"It's a good problem to have," Savage said of the whirlwind. "Meeting with these guys, it's been fun. I think it's obviously a unique process. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance and opportunity. But I really tried to enjoy it and make the most of it."

The questions from each franchise came fast and furious, and Savage was armed with the proper responses. A career that began with freshman All-America honors at Rutgers spiraled into a stint as an injured backup, a play-free pit stop at Arizona and, ultimately, a transfer back east to Pitt, where he walked on while sitting out in 2012.

He dug himself into a hole in three short years. He has done everything since to dig himself out of it.

"A lot of the teams really commended me just on being honest about this thing," Savage said. "I think a lot of times in college, kids want to place the blame on coaches, and I think that they're easy scapegoats -- 'Oh, I guess the coach didn't like me.'

"The reality was that it was on me and I was to [blame] at Rutgers and I had the job taken from me. I just learned a lot from the whole process, and coaches want to hear the honest truth. They don't want to hear the blame game, they don't want to hear any excuses. That's the way the game is, and it's a performance-based game and you've got to go out there and perform every game or you're going to lose your job."

Savage's attitude, coupled with time, has allowed him to emerge from a fringe draft prospect to the flavor of the month. That would be one more obvious revision to his story from that of the similarly built Brady, who was a sixth-round sleeper. Improbably, such differences have been arising fewer and further between as of late.

And where this all stops, no one knows.

"I think it's the whole underdog story, every quarterback really should build their game around that guy," Savage said of Brady. "He's a competitive guy and, like me, I don't think we're the most athletic guys on the field at all times, but I think he's got enough athleticism to make some people miss in the pocket and get rid of the ball. So I just look up to a guy like that."