Projected 2010 depth chart:
It's possible to squint during Rutgers games and imagine that John Elway is under center. That's not to suggest that Tom Savage is guaranteed to be the next great quarterback. Far from it, although you wouldn't see many complaints around these parts if he decided to play along. It's more of a commentary on his physical gifts. Savage is listed on the athletic department's official roster as being 6'5, 230 lbs.
He understandably has a very strong arm, but what's so astounding for a such a textbook signal caller is that Tom Savage is hardly a statue in the pocket. He can move around fairly well, even if it's not reflected in recorded statistics. Between last year's poor OL play and a thin depth chart at QB, Coach Schiano certainly isn't going to risk his meal ticket on spread option plays (not when Mohamed Sanu can do that.) The NCAA records sacks as rushes for negative yards for some odd reason, which also helps to mask Savage's surprising mobility.
How good exactly was Tom Savage last year? In fact, he was the most productive true freshman quarterback in Big East history. Savage had a far better touchdown to interception ratio last year than Mike Teel did in his first season as a starter in 2006 (as a redshirt sophomore). Tom does seem to be a more accurate passer, and doesn't have as much of a tendency to make risky throws into double and triple coverage. He undoubtedly lucked out at points earlier in the season, which started to turn into interceptions later on, but it was a good relative debut considering expectations.
Now the question becomes how Savage will progress going forward. He's already being mentioned as a future NFL prospect, but there's no sense in speculating now on that topic prematurely. This is still a work in progress..
"And from a football standpoint, my completion percentage wasn't too well so I want to be able to get the ball out quicker and be more accurate out there. So I can at least manage more drives, get less 3-and-outs. It's pretty much what I'm going to work on."
The more immediate challenge though will be making the team his own, and developing more chemistry with a young supporting cast.
"I get the receivers together a lot on weekends," Savage said. "Last year was a little tougher because you're playing with a bunch of older receivers. Tim Brown, he threw with Mike Teel, who was probably the greatest quarterback who ever played here. So you have to earn your respect. You can't go out there and try to take charge — you have to earn it and I feel like hopefully I earned it with these guys. They trust me and I think the leadership role is a little easier."
It will be more difficult continuing to meet expectations as they start rising, and Tom is tasked with taking greater reigns over the offense. It won't be enough to just hand off and make easy throws; now he'll have to read and dissect defenses, and be an active asset in victories.
Coach Schiano said he didn't want to put too much on you as a true freshman last year. Do you feel like the playbook is more opened up to you this season?
TS: I've told them numerous times that I'm ready to expand and learn as much as I can. That's what I'm ready to do. To give the team the best opportunity to win, you've got to be able to throw everything at the guys, and I want to be the kind of guy who can understand everything and really be the manager of the offense.
College Football Almanac 2010 posits that QBs typically improve the most between their freshman and sophomore seasons, a trend that holds even stronger for high profile high school stars at the position. Tom Savage was a true freshman last year, but also has an early 1990 birthday (per the Rutgers media guide). Savage also attended several spring practices last year, although his high school didn't allow him to enroll early. His age and familiarity probably gave him the edge over the average true freshman enrollee, although there isn't really enough evidence to definitively settle that question one way or another.
Either way, the suburban Philadelphia native is going to take every conceivably snap this fall in standard formations, barring injury or garbage time. Fans universally adore the guy, both as a symbolic promise of future success, and in lingering gratitude for coming to campus in the first place. It's near inconceivable to imagine any calls for a backup even in the most trying scenarios. Considering Mike Teel's ironclad hold on the starting job from 2006 to 2009, it's beyond unlikely that the coaching staff would ever waiver in their commitment to Savage either. They appear to have hitched their wagons even closer to the new guy.
Nominally second on the depth chart is sophomore Steve Shimko. The book on him going back to high school has always been the same. He's tall, and has a big arm, but needs to improve on accuracy and decision making. Those reports pretty much continued throughout last season and spring practice, and the spring game in April showed more of the same. As of now, Shimko still needs more seasoning before he's ready to see game action. Considering how thin the Rutgers depth chart is at the quarterback position, the idea of losing Savage for any notable length of time would be uncomfortable.
That's not to completely dismiss Shimko. As of the spring, he was clearly still a work in progress, and far behind Savage, but that doesn't mean that the light will never come on. Steve was always a bit of a project, and it's not really fair to judge him until his junior season in 2011. Maybe he puts it together next spring, or even in the forthcoming August heat. The same College Football Almanac research cited above for Savage also shows that unheralded quarterbacks recruits usually improve as upperclassmen. What we have here isn't necessarily a Shimko problem, but more an indictment of the roster depth that unfortunately causes him to be a convenient scapegoat.
If Savage goes down and misses considerable time, the most likely candidate to play under center then would quite possibly be receiver Mohamed Sanu in some variant of the Wildcat formation. Sanu in fact first came on everybody's radar with a dominant performance under center at the 2008 New Jersey/New York All-Star Classic. Based on that game, and his snaps last fall, it's easy to envision him as a starting quarterback had Mohamed been given more of an opportunity there.
For non-spread option teams, usually change of pace quarterbacks are of limited effectiveness. They're not great passers (or else, they'd be more viable starting options), and may not be good enough to play another position full time. Since the insertion of a running QB usually signifies some sort of option or zone-read play, defenses usually are able to key in a run. Without the thread of a viable pass to keep them honest, this scenario can turn into a sisyphean sacrifice of downs.
At quarterback last year, Sanu turned all the negative stereotypes on their head. Fespite only completing one of seven attempt passes, his throws were usually in the vicinity of targeted receivers, and should be more effective with a better supporting cast this year. Sanu's still fundamentally a runner though. What makes him so effective there is that he's built like a linebacker, with chiseled, defined physique. He'll probably have to file a restraining order against me the next time I marvel over the size of his gigantic thighs. Throw in off the wall athleticism, and you're left with one ridiculous multi-positional threat.
It's hard to say right now whether or not incoming freshman Chas Dodd could overtake Shimko on the team depth chart, and have a chance to eschew a redshirt in mop-up duty. Dodd was extraordinarily, crazy productive in high school at South Carolina powerhouse Byrnes. In a down year for the position, the Rutgers staff identified him, and deliberately chose him over several other offer candidates. He's also a very hard worker, a coach's son, and a reported strong arm doesn't hurt either.
"He came to our camp," Schiano said, "and (displayed) one of the strongest arms I've ever seen. Which is something for a 6-foot or under guy."
Working against Dodd though are several factors. Byrnes had a considerable talent advantage over most of their opponents last year (although, Dodd and his teammates played well against a top competitor in St. Thomas Aquinas from Florida). He played in a wide open spread offense that boosted his numbers even further. The biggest red flag of all is probably his lack of height. Drew Brees winning the Super Bowl doesn't change the fact that most smaller QBs aren't that successful. Considering that every team East of the Mississippi knows Byrnes up and down, I'm on the record as being a Dodd skeptic. He does have some ideal traits for a change of pace backup though.
I think Sanu would shift to QB if Savage were to go down and miss time, but barring that, it's very possible that another player could take his place in the Wildcat if that role were limited to only a few snaps per game. After all, Sanu may be versatile, but he's being counted on this year to step into a #1 receiver role. Incoming freshman receiver/athlete Jeremy Deering is one player who's been mentioned as a replacement for Sanu in this role, but it's too early to venture as to who will fill that void until fall camp begins in earnest.
The one last caveat at the position is regarding tight end D.C. Jefferson. He originally committed to Rutgers as a quarterback, and showed legitimate, albeit raw promise there. It was through a combination of the prospect of competing with Savage (both had the same amount of eligibility remaining), and a thin depth chart at TE that saw Jefferson moved. That may not have been all that fair to D.C., but he went along with it, showed a lot of promise, and is currently penciled in as a starter. Considering that he didn't move back to QB last year when Savage missed the Maryland game injured, this ship has probably sailed for good. It'd still be fun to get him involved in some sort of trick play on occasion however.
Cautious optimism rules the day here. Tom Savage still has a long way to go, but you won't find many quarterbacks out there that show more promise. Unfortunately for Rutgers, there's not all that much behind him, and that might not change for a while. The assumption that Savage is almost guaranteed to be a four-year starter has made Rutgers a tough sell for recruits here over the past two years. If by chance he were to go down, Rutgers would probably have to scrap most of its playbook and show a very different look on offense. That, of course, is all assuming that Savage even keeps on track in his progression into a star playmaker. We can only hope to get a chance to find out.