PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — When a young John Congemi became the last Pitt quarterback to defeat Florida State–and on local turf, for that matter–nearly 30 years ago, he only had the benefit of four previous starts with his team at the time.
Tom Savage doesn’t even have that luxury. However, after taking after an unimaginably circuitous route to the Steel City, he has the blessing of head coach Paul Chryst, who, on Wednesday, anointed Savage his starter for the Panthers’ Labor Day lid-lifter at Heinz Field.
“Right now he gives us the best chance to win,” Chryst said after morning practice on the South Side. “He’s got some stuff that he needs to continue working on, and I love his approach to that. He’s talented.”
“It is a privilege,” said Savage of the decision. “All the quarterbacks have been working hard. If Coach thinks that is the best route, then that is what goes.”
Savage (6’5″, 230 lbs.) broke a Big East freshman record with Rutgers in 2009 when he amassed 2,211 yards, completing 52% of his passes for 14 touchdowns against seven picks. He was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.
(Highlight courtesy of ESPN Plus/Big East Network)
Things went awry in the middle of his sophomore season, as he injured his right (throwing) hand and lost his job to another pure freshman, Chas Dodd. The Scarlet Knights, ironically, had hired former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, whose scheme would have been a good fit for a fully-healed Savage, but that didn’t stop him from transferring to Arizona.
As he spent 2011 carrying a clipboard for Rich Rodriguez, studying his spread-option attack, Savage decided to transfer once again, opting for Chryst’s more familiar pro-style offense.
“He’s done a good job. I think he got familiar with the offense last year. Bowl practice was the first time he got to run and execute it. Obviously he got a lot of reps in the spring,” Chryst said.
“I am anxious to get out there, but I don’t want to wish away time,” said a red-clad Savage after his red-letter day. “We have this opportunity to get better as a team and improve.”
Of the two quarterbacks most likely to lead the Panthers into the ACC, Chryst chose the older, more experienced one. But did he choose the correct one?
On paper, Savage, entering his final year of eligibility, has less to prove than redshirt freshman Chad Voytik. When you remember he hasn’t seen the field for a regular-season game in almost three years, that statement becomes more debatable.
The versatile Voytik, a nationally-renown Todd Graham recruit from Cleveland High School in Cleveland, Tenn., shined under the lights of Bethel Park Stadium in the annual Blue-Gold Game, albeit mainly with the second-string offense, and his coaching staff is pleased with his work this summer.
“My first reaction was ‘Don’t let this slow down your progression because this is my time to build and to keep getting better,'” Voytik said, “so when my name is called I’m ready to step in there, and I can do what I’m supposed to do.”
“I don’t think Chad will miss a beat in his approach. He is wired in to competing and enjoys that,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph added. “I think he will put pressure on himself to keep doing the same. I don’t expect him to relax one bit.”
You might say Savage is Tino Sunseri 2.0. He’s another pocket passer, this time with an amplified arm that has compelled Chryst and Rudolph to stretch the field–and their playbook–and a greater tolerance for pressure.
Furthermore, Chryst followed the same logic when sticking by the future Saskatchewan Roughrider. Warts and all, Sunseri still made the Panthers more competitive than his alternatives, and he vindicated his coach by making significant progress in his final season.
That said, do you remember the last quarterback to play regularly at Wisconsin when Chryst was the offensive coordinator at his alma mater?
Assuming you correctly guessed Russell Wilson, you don’t need a reminder that the Seattle Seahawks sophomore has already made a name for himself with his arm and legs in the NFL after fine-tuning his running skills for a year with the Badgers.
Wilson averaged 5.2 yards a carry in 2011 and threw for well over 3,000, plus a school-record 33 TD’s, while leading Wisconsin to a Big Ten championship.
So it is conceivable that Voytik, who lost the battle, can win the war. He may not yet have the book smarts, but the fleet-footed high school All-American has the street smarts (over 1,000 career rush yards at Cleveland), not to mention the rifle (Cleveland all-time record 5,005 pass yards), to lead this offense in the future.
(Highlights courtesy of 247Sports)
“I have to credit both of them. They work together extremely well. They communicated and helped each other just as you would want it to be if you were putting a team together,” Rudolph said. “The maturity level and experience of Tom has helped him absorb it a little better.”
Let’s hope that, along with his slightly superior physique, helps him absorb contact a little better as well. When he lines up on the ball for the first time that Monday night, the No. 11 Seminoles will line up with a highly-touted defensive front against an offensive line that graduated its two best players from 2012.
The conference champs return their top two tacklers from a unit that ranked second nationally in total defense last year.
You won’t see Savage shrink like a frightened turtle when the pocket collapses, but with the potential existing for a lot of heat in his kitchen right out of the tunnel, timing and decisiveness makes a difference.
That’s the next step for Pitt’s next signal-caller.
“I think his timing with the passing game–not just with the receivers, but with his own timing and when to stay with a particular guy and when to get off and work through his progressions,” Chryst responded when asked what Savage must improve the rest of camp. “In the run game, I think he can improve his tracks, and where he’s getting the ball to the back.
“When he second-guesses himself, or when there is a miscommunication, that’s things we’ve got to work through.”
The education of both QBs continued at Friday’s intra-squad scrimmage. Savage feels better about his timing, and Voytik feels better about the results of his film sessions with positional coach Brooks Bollinger.
“I’m honestly having the most fun I’ve ever had playing football,” Voytik said. “I’m starting to see things. I’m reading coverages, I know exactly what my guys are doing, and I’m throwing the best I have. So I’ve just been out the each day, having fun. It’s starting to click for me.”
Savage, meanwhile, is being groomed for success–as much as he can achieve in this time of uncertainty for the offense. He’s got two gifted receivers in freshman Tyler Boyd and accomplished senior Devin Street who can divide the attention of defenses, and he’s got a host of tight ends getting involved in the passing game, including exciting redshirt junior Manasseh Garner.
He’s also got a coach who, unlike his predecessor, won’t let one man disappear under a fleet of buses without the other ten knowing what their jobs are.
But if the cold quarterback doesn’t get the job done, the raw one has to grow up in a hurry.
“I was excited, but I would be a fool to take it as any more than that, especially with what happened to me in the past. I can’t become complacent with it,” Savage said of his first-string status. “It’s a privilege but I have to keep working and keep improving.”
It will be his his team to begin the year. But can we be certain it will still be his team by the end of it?
Pitt finished in the middle of the FBS in touchdown passes in 2012, and in its bottom half in points per game. FSU, with that vaunted “D,” punctuates what promises to be a much tougher schedule in 2013.
The time is now for Savage to be the player Greg Schiano thought he would be, and the leader the Panthers need him to be.
(Contact me at email@example.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)