Rutgers hopes youth will be served

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage was talking about the need to mentor the "young guys" on his team when he corrected himself.

"Well, not 'young guys,'" he said, "because I'm still a young guy."

It's hard to tell sometimes with these Scarlet Knights. Their two most recognizable stars are true sophomores in Savage and do-it-all receiver Mohamed Sanu, who established themselves as the faces of the program in 2009. Sometimes, young players rising to the spotlight so quickly could cause issues with the rest of the team.

ut Savage and Sanu aren't your normal youngsters.

"They're such humble guys, and that allows the older guys to not feel like they're stealing their thunder," head coach Greg Schiano said. "They know their place yet they're strong leaders, and you don't see that very much. A lot of great young players are very boisterous or out in front all the time.

"Not these guys. They're grinders."

The roots of success for both took hold this time a year ago.

Sanu wasn't the typical true freshman; he turned 19 in the summer of 2008 -- the result of being held back a year to work on his English after living in Sierra Leone as a kid -- and was ruled ineligible to play as a high school senior. He enrolled at Rutgers in January as a safety and was moved to wide receiver late in spring practice because of a pressing need at the position.

No problem. Sanu -- who was a quarterback in high school -- became the team's second-leading receiver, a dangerous runner in the Wildcat formation and Rutgers' best all-around offensive playmaker.

Savage didn't enroll early, but he made the 90-minute drive from Springfield, Pa., to watch all but one of the Scarlet Knights' spring practices from the sidelines last year. He scheduled his high school classes so that he could skip lunch and leave early, and he'd switch from his school uniform into regular clothes in a bathroom near the practice fields. Despite particularly cold and rainy weather last spring, Savage braved the elements to soak up as much knowledge as he could.

He was thrust into action during the second half of the opener against Cincinnati after senior Dom Natale suffered through a three-interception nightmare. Savage went 8-3 as a starter, missing one game because of an injury. It's never easy for a true freshman to command a huddle full of upperclassmen, but Savage found his way.

"When you're still a young guy, you have to earn respect in the locker room," he said. "I didn't feel like I could gain that until I started going out there and making plays. What I learned is that people look for you to speak up and assert yourself. I'm using that now."

Taking charge came more naturally for Sanu.

"I had to be who I am," he said. "You don't have to be a senior or a junior to be a leader. You just have to be confident and step up and make plays."

Schiano placed both freshmen on his players' leadership council last year, which wasn't unusual since he tries to have representation from every class. Unlike previous freshmen who mostly acquiesced to the older guys, though, Savage and Sanu spoke their minds and "were integral and respected members" of the council, Schiano said.

It helps that they're both among the team's hardest workers. Sanu said a typical day for he and Savage usually involves around eight or nine hours in the Hale Center complex. They'll watch film, practice extra throws or go over the playbook long after their team requirements have ended.

"We're rarely in our rooms," Sanu said. "We just love the game and want to get better all the time."

Savage is a perfectionist. Offensive lineman Art Forst recalled a game last season in which the young quarterback was having one of his best days. But Savage missed one read, and that's all he could talk about the rest of the game. After throwing an interception near the goal line at practice last week, Savage slumped his shoulders as he walked toward the sidelines and threw his helmet to the ground.

The dedication and desire from both stars can't help but filter down to the rest of the team, and that gives reason to hope that this otherwise green bunch can compete in the Big East this season.

The stat Schiano likes to recite is that 62 of his 85 scholarship players this season will have three or four years of eligibility remaining. That's as young of a team as he can remember having. So while true freshmen like Sanu, Savage and promising linebacker Steve Beauharnais made an immediate impact last year, Schiano redshirted most of his 2009 signing class, including ESPNU 150 recruits Antwan Lowery and Darrell Givens. Last year, he said, was the first time in his nine years at Rutgers that he had enough depth to hold back players of that skill level.

"I know we're young but at the same time, it's probably the most talented group I've ever seen here," senior defensive lineman Alex Silvestro said.

If several underclassmen prove as precocious as Savage and Sanu, the Scarlet Knights could improve on last year's nine wins. Even if not, they appear set up for a run at their first Big East title in the next two or three years.

"We're focused on this year because it's all we can worry about now," Savage said. "But obviously, if you do the math, we're all young and we're going to be here for a while. And that's fun to think about."

Spoken like a grizzled veteran.