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Rutgers soph. Savage embracing role as team, conference vet

Tom Savage had a good summer. That's no surprise considering the Rutgers quarterback went from an unknown true freshman to the Big East's elder statesman at the position in less than a year. But as much as Savage was looking forward to his second year with the Scarlet Knights, he was arguably more excited about something else: Toy Story 3.

"I'm pumped," Savage said before the film's release. "I'm going to the IMAX one. I'm paying the 15 bucks."

Savage's taste in film is a striking reminder of his youth, which is easy to forget about after a 2009 campaign in which he earned the starting job two quarters into the season, threw for 2,211 yards and 14 scores and led the Knights to a 45-24 win over UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Savage is still just a year removed from arriving in Piscataway, N.J., but his 11 starts under center make him the most experienced quarterback in the Big East.

Now, the 20-year-old is the key cog for a Rutgers team with conference title expectations and BCS bowl dreams. If Savage continues to progress and a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Big East last season continues to deliver, those goals could be in reach.

So is Savage feeling the heat? Hardly. His cool demeanor is as impressive as his big arm.

"You want to have that pressure," Savage said. "That's what quarterbacks sign up for. I probably have a higher expectation than most of the fans do anyway."

Those fans were notoriously tough on Savage's predecessor, Mike Teel, even as he led the Knights to a 27-12 record and three bowl victories in his three years as a starter. Savage and Teel talk weekly, and Teel's advice has aided Savage's transition from wide-eyed freshman to team leader.

Like Teel, Savage will likely face a wide-open Big East race. Conference favorites Pitt and West Virginia are breaking in new quarterbacks. Two-time defending champ Cincinnati is adjusting to a new coach. Perennial sleeper teams South Florida and Connecticut have yet to prove they can take the next step.

Savage's continued development will be crucial for a young (or, as he puts it, "hyper") Rutgers team that finished 9-4 last season, but went just 3-4 in conference play. He generated plenty of hype as a prospect last August, even earning a comparison to John Elway. But he wasn't asked to be Elway when he was thrust into the lineup against Cincinnati in the opener. Instead, he benefited from playing behind a veteran (albeit patchwork) offensive line and beside a talented group of playmakers.

"I think it was a lot of pressure off his back, knowing that he had people he could trust to lead the offense," said fifth-year lineman Howard Barbieri. "He could just do what he needed to do to help us win games."

Savage openly admits that for much of his freshman season, he tried to avoid making costly errors. He threw interceptions in just five games and leaned on playmakers like Tim Brown, Joe Martinek and Mohamed Sanu to do much of the offense's heavy lifting.

"Last year, I felt like my role, from my personal perception, was to go out there and just not make mistakes," said Savage. "You want to be consistent, move the ball, get guys the ball. This year I want to grow a little bit more."

For Rutgers to win the Big East, Savage will have to grow more than a little. He will have to jumpstart an offense that ranked seventh in the league in passing yards per game in '09 and finished last in the conference in total yards per game. Factor in the loss of Brown -- who racked up 1,150 receiving yards (second in the Big East) and nine touchdowns -- and Savage won't be able to hide behind his youth anymore.

But Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano knows growing pains will accompany his young veteran's development.

"He's got a lot of football under him, but you're still going to see a lot of mistakes," Schiano said. "He'll make more mistakes because he's taking more chances. If you're not making any mistakes, you're not taking chances at making plays."

In addition to making plays, Savage will have to lead. Last season he focused on doing his job and fitting in, but this year he is unquestionably the man. And being the man comes with responsibilities. But Savage said the new role won't affect his identity. "I'm not really a big yeller," Savage said.

Instead, Savage hopes to lead by the example of his attitude and performance. Teammates have already noticed the change. "[He] takes the bull by the horns now," said Barbieri, who called his young quarterback a natural leader.

Despite his quiet disposition, there's one thing Savage won't shy away from discussing: building a legacy at Rutgers.

"We want people to know that we're here to play, and we're here to stay," Savage said. "We want to be a steppingstone for the next generation, and we want to be able to have kids when they're growing up say, 'Hey, I want to play for Rutgers.'"

Wise words from a leader who is still a kid himself.

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