PITTSBURGH — Tom Savage is used to hearing people rave about his arm strength, to the point where myth has evolved into fact.
Asked how far he thinks the well-traveled Pittsburgh senior quarterback can chuck it, freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd thinks for a second then throws out “80 yards.”
Oh, and he was serious.
When told about Boyd’s guess, Savage — once he caught his breath after breaking out into laughter — shook his head and said “No, I don’t think it’s 80. I wish.”
The smile faded quickly as Savage tried to move past the benefits of the big arm that has led him across the country and back again on a nomadic collegiate career that is finally flourishing with the Panthers.
“Anybody can go out there and throw to a wide-open guy like Tyler,” Savage said. “A lot of it is poise to play this position, just go back there and play tough.”
Once a budding star at Rutgers before entering two years in college football’s version of purgatory, Savage has found a home at Pitt. He tied an ACC record with six touchdown passes in a 58-55 win over Duke last week, the kind of day that seemed to validate his long journey back from obscurity.
Savage, of course, would rather talk about the present than the past. It’s hard to blame him. He seemed poised for a lengthy career at Rutgers after emerging as the starter early in his freshman year in 2009. He led the Scarlet Knights to a 9-4 record and a win over UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl, a victory in which he threw for 297 yards and two scores.
A hand injury his sophomore year allowed Chas Dodd to leapfrog him on the depth chart. By the end of the 2010, he was out the door, headed west to play for Mike Stoops at Arizona. He sat out the 2011 season under NCAA transfer rules only to see Stoops fired and replaced by Rich Rodriguez. For all of his talent, the one thing the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Savage is not built to do, is run the football, a prerequisite for Rodriguez-coached quarterbacks.
Looking for a place to land, and running out of opportunities, Savage transferred to Pitt in 2012. He sacrificed a year of eligibility for the chance to play for Paul Chryst. The Pitt coach has a knack for making the most of one-year starters, look no further than Russell Wilson’s trajectory-altering season at Wisconsin in 2011 when Chryst was the offensive coordinator.
Chryst was drawn by Savage’s physical tools and the fact there was no real heir apparent to departing starter Tino Sunseri. Savage was drawn by the laid-back coach who has a knack for taking the pressure of his players, allowing them to just go out and be themselves.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” Savage said. “He wants you to just go out there and sling the rock around and have fun with it.”
At the moment, things are as fun as they’ve been in quite awhile for Pitt (2-1, 1-1 ACC). The Panthers can put together their first three-game winning streak since 2010 with a victory over Virginia (2-1) on Saturday. Led by Savage and a pair of quickly maturing freshmen in Boyd and running back James Conner, Pitt’s offense is turning from a question mark to an exclamation point.
Savage’s 424 yards passing against the Blue Devils marked the fourth-highest total in the program’s history. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played in a game in nearly three years when he stepped under center in the season opener against Florida State.
The rust showed. The Panthers were competitive early but desperate late in a 41-13 loss to the Seminoles. Only there was no panic from Savage. He responded by completing 13 of 17 for 236 yards and two touchdowns in a rout over New Mexico before effortlessly guiding the Panthers past Duke in a wild shootout.
Savage hit Devin Street for a 67-yard score in the first quarter then found a streaking Boyd for a 69-yard strike on Pitt’s next offensive play. Neither receiver had to break stride on their way to the end zone.
“He’s got touch,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “He’s got guys he can throw it to, and they can run under it .
“That makes him pretty special.”
Even if Savage does his best to be just one of the guys in the locker room. It’s not always easy. For one thing, the 23-year-old Savage is a relic compared to some of his younger teammates like the 18-year-old Boyd.
“They’re in eighth grade when I’m a freshman in college playing, it’s kind of bizarre,” Savage said with a laugh.
He’s kidding. While center Artie Rowell jokes there is some “locker room stuff” when it comes to Savage’s seniority, it disappears when the Panthers are on the field. Out there he’s just one of the guys trying to lead a program back to respectability.
“He’s not too up, he’s not too down,” Rowell said. “He stays constant. I think that’s the sign of a good ballplayer.”