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Rapid rise makes Savage's winding road to NFL Draft worthwhile

More NFL offseason: Mock Drafts | Prospect Rankings | Pro days | Top free agents

The situation could have been incredibly awkward.

Tom Savage, coming off a resurgent senior season at Pittsburgh, opened the door to begin his combine interview with the New England Patriots and immediately saw too familiar faces -- the often-scowling face of super-intense Bill Belichick, a coaching legend, and Belichick disciple Greg Schiano, who once brought Savage to Rutgers as one of the top prep recruits in the country, then watched him transfer to Arizona just before his junior season after a falling out over the starting role.

It was a daunting room, to say the least, but one that Savage took on straight away. He immediately set a tone by issuing a mea culpa to Schiano, who he didn't expect to be there, taking responsibility for immaturity and mistakes he made early in his college career. He broke the ice with a joke or two as well, sources said, and at a time when the focus back in February was on Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater or the NFL viability of Michael Sam, this was one of many behind-the-scenes moments that was setting the stage for Savage's meteoric rise. Savage further fueled his growing buzz with a very strong combine performance and followed that with a series of workouts for NFL teams that has many scouts talking about Savage in more of the glowing terms that accompanied his journey to Rutgers and much less about the series of transfers and lack of playing time that marred much of his college career.

He has had much to overcome in a short period of time. So far Savage has navigated it with aplomb, to the point where many projections have him going in the second round, possibly quite high, and he was invited to attend the draft at Radio City Music Hall (Savage politely declined). None of it, however, may have been as potentially stressful as that initial meeting with the Patriots, a team that very well could select a quarterback. Savage is among those whom they would have in-depth firsthand knowledge.

"I was surprised to see him in the room," Savage said of Schiano, who has been doing consulting work for Belichick since being let go as head coach of the Buccaneers. "And obviously I was a little nervous, too. At the time, I was a little nervous just to meet Coach Belichick, because you see him all the times on the sidelines and he's pretty intimidating on his own, and then I see Coach Schiano is in there, too. It was a unique experience, I have to say, and it was fun, too. I can look back on it and laugh. It was a good time and I really enjoyed the combine.

"Coach Schiano and I, even when I left Rutgers, I felt like we were on pretty good terms and I was a young kid at the time and I thought I was entitled to stuff and people make mistakes when they're younger and leaving Rutgers was one of mine, and I told him that at the combine."

The Patriots were impressed by Savage's upfront approach and demeanor. He has continued to make a good impression on NFL coaches and decision makers ever since, leading to a player barely even being mentioned in connection with the draft about three months ago now the subject of considerable debate about just how high he might go on the second day of the draft next week in New York City. It has also led to a whirlwind tour in which Savage got requests to either visit or work out for so many teams that several clubs had to be turned away. There simply was not sufficient time to meet them all.

Teams had until April 27 to complete their series of player visits at their facility (they are allowed to bring in a maximum of 30 draft prospects), and Savage was in demand. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he certainly looks the part, and the more work teams did on him the more they seem to like what they see.

"I'm already like Silver Premier," he noted, a nod to all the frequent flier miles he built up crisscrossing the country. There were too many visits and workouts for Savage to remember them all off the top of his head as he paused Thursday afternoon to collect his thoughts after a dizzying run the past six weeks.

"I went and visited roughly 12 teams and I think 10 to 12 teams came and worked me out as well," he said.

Many of the obvious candidates -- teams lacking viable options at quarterback on their current roster -- are smitten with him. He could go as high as 33rd overall, to the Texans, some believe, if they do not take a quarterback in the first round. The Vikings would be looking at him in the second round as well, and the Jaguars would be another legitimate possibility at No. 39, again assuming they do not take a passer with their first pick. Savage has approached each meeting with teams as an opportunity to absorb as much as possible, to tell his story and explain how he went from a nationally heralded recruit to a walk-on at Pitt his senior year just hoping to earn a scholarship and then a few months later something of a pre-draft darling.

"Most of the coaches I've met, to be honest, it's a full day," Savage said, "and you are sitting in their office for two or three hours and you get to communicate with them and it's fun just to talk ball with them and to pick their brains as well. People think it's just them interviewing you, but you can soak up a lot too and I tried to get as much as I could from all those guys and try to gain a little edge for the future."

Tom Savage started strong at Rutgers before things soured and he moved on to Arizona and Pitt. (USATSI)
Tom Savage started strong at Rutgers before things soured and he moved on to Arizona and Pitt. (USATSI)

Savage in many ways is still pinching himself. His journey is far from the norm.

When he chose Rutgers it was cause for celebration throughout New Jersey, a crowning achieving for Schiano (who league sources said has championed Savage's ability when approached by NFL teams considering drafting the youngster), rebuilding the long-dormant program, and he was immediately big man on campus. Top that off with an excellent freshman season, in which he earned national honors, and it seemed like great things were ahead.

But Savage fell into a slump his sophomore season, got injured, the team underperformed and Schiano made it clear that in his junior year, the hotshot would be fighting for a job. He wouldn't be guaranteed the starting position. Had he stayed, as Savage knows he should have, he would have won the job and it probably would have lit a fire under him and propelled him to regain his form.

Instead he split, transferring to Arizona, where he had to sit out a year. And then the Wildcats made a coaching change, bringing in Rich Rodriguez and a style of offense that didn't fit Savage at all, and he was transferring again (the moves are not unlike what Nick Foles went through in his college career, and Foles, who had a breakout season with the Eagles in 2013, is a confidant of Savage's and someone he draws some comparisons to).

"I was a young kid at the time," Savage said, "and I speak to Coach Schiano often and I tell him the God's honest truth -- I was a young kid at the time and I thought I was entitled to the starting job or a second chance, but to be honest, this game is a business and Coach Schiano has to feed his family as well and he made a decision to go with the other guy and at the time I would have said I didn't get a fair shot, but I did. Looking back on it now, I learned a good, valuable lesson at a young age."

So, at this point, after starting 12 games as a freshman with a 129 passer rating, Savage appeared in just six games between 2010 and '13, when he arrived at Pitt. That's a lot of lost time. Panthers coach Paul Cryst offered Savage an opportunity to make his team, nothing else, and perhaps salvage something from his college career, and Savage took full advantage.

He won the quarterback job, ended up being a team leader and, after an admittedly slow start and some struggles in September -- only natural given how long it had been since he was in a game setting -- Savage began to take off (it should be noted that Savage had six touchdown passes against a quality Duke secondary in his third game of the season, too). He tossed 11 TD passes to just three interceptions in his final seven games, his completion percentage began to soar, and Savage ended up fourth in the ACC in passing yards and third in touchdowns.

"It was a good experience this season," Savage said. "Obviously, looking back at it, I would have liked to win more games and we only went 7-6 and I wanted to win more games, but I think the program is on the rise and for me, personally, I just enjoyed getting back to a team, getting back to the guys. That's the first thing you miss -- being around the guys and being in the locker room.

"The whole process just helped me out a lot. And it was humbling. Shoot, I went into Rutgers as a top recruit, I played my freshman year and get freshman All-American and I never had any adversity, and this helped me out and I evolved. I was voted a captain my senior year and I was only at Pitt one year and I earned the team's trust and these were guys who had been playing together three or four years and they're like, 'Who is this hotshot walking in our locker room?' And I was able to earn their trust and that helped me out a lot."

With his travels to teams now complete, Savage is trying to exhale a bit. He is maintaining his running and throwing program, and maintaining this base he has built up. He throws regularly to some friends who played college football, and some neighborhoods and even his father when need be, though those options are waning.

"My dad doesn't like it anymore," Savage said. "He wears big construction gloves now when I throw to him and he just swats the ball down. He doesn't even try to catch it."

I fully anticipate another team or two to schedule a second workout with him, very quietly, in this final week before the draft, and I suspect Savage won't have to wait all that long to hear his name called over the three-day affair. In the meantime Savage is trying to avoid the hype, staying away from the mock drafts and savoring the opportunity to be with an NFL team soon enough, something that was hardly assured this time a year ago.

"Before the season started I wasn't imagining any of this," Savage said. "I just wanted another shot to play the game again and I've been through that process where I didn't have football in my life, and I am just enjoying everything about it now. I try to keep my expectations low, especially with this draft process.

"I don't know what's going to happen and a lot of it is fluff, and I have no idea what to believe and you can't really control it. A lot of it is just rumors and no team is going to tell you, 'We're definitely going to take you here.' You just find out when the commissioner calls your name. I'd be lying if I said I should be in the second round and all of that, but I try not to get excited by it. But it's a different game now, and a team is going to make their decision the way they want to make it, and all I know is it looks like I am going to get a shot, and that's what I am focused on."


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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