Maryland safety Darnell Savage Jr. has emerged as a bright spot throughout the course of a forgettable season for the Terps' defense, as the junior has made 53 tackles, intercepted three passes, broken up six more and was integral to one of Maryland's four wins.
Savage's transformation into a playmaking safety began during head coach DJ Durkin's first spring with the Terps. Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh said the coaching staff talked during the spring of 2016 about moving Savage, who played cornerback as a freshman in 2015, to safety. The staff pulled the trigger ahead of the 2016 season.
"Between the spring and that summer, we made the decision to change him, and Darnell has never flinched," Buh said. "He was all-in the minute that we said it to him. He saw it as an opportunity to get on the field. And since he's done that, he's really excelled at the position. His development has been really good, and we're seeing that in his play now."
The 5-foot-10 Savage was recruited by the Terps' previous coaching staff out of Caravel Academy (Del.), and he committed in June 2014. The Newark, Del., native played in 10 games as a freshman for the Terps, starting one at corner.
Productive defensive backs Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon and A.J. Hendy all graduated after the 2015 season, leaving holes at both safety positions heading into the 2016 season. Durkin's staff began the season with Savage and Denzel Conyers at those spots. Savage went on to start 12 of 13 games as a sophomore, recording 59 tackles and an interception.
"I think [the switch to safety] was a good thing because I think it really forced me to learn a lot more about football -- not just about playing safety," Savage said. "It's easier to play when you know what everybody's doing, and sometimes at corner when you're out there on an island by yourself, you're kind of only worried about your job. But at safety, you've got to make sure you pay attention to what everyone's doing. I think that's just made me a better player."
Savage has taken on a variety of roles at safety this year. He's played over the top as a single high safety or as part of a Cover 2 look. He's also played closer to the line of scrimmage to blitz, defend the run, cover slot receivers one-on-one, or as Buh pointed out, play zone coverage underneath.
Savage intercepted Towson quarterback Ryan Stover Sept. 9 while playing center field as a single high safety. He read the eyes of Stover and
broke on a pass
that sailed over the intended receiver. Savage intercepted Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson Oct. 14 with the Terps in Cover 2, and Savage again read the eyes of the quarterback and
on an overthrown ball.
"It's fun to move around and play different spots, especially in this defense," Savage said. "It's fun, first of all because the guys that I'm playing with, and second of all because some of the schemes that we run. It's definitely great that I get to move around and cover receivers and make tackles and stuff like that, too."
Savage's third interception this season came against Indiana Oct. 28, a game in which Savage almost singlehandedly got his team back into the game. Maryland fell behind, 14-0, to the Hoosiers in the first quarter before Savage took over.
Savage intercepted Hoosiers quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who was looking for receiver Luke Timian on a quick slant route from the slot. But Savage was covering Timian one-on-one, blanketed him and picked off the pass. That set up Maryland deep in Indiana territory, and a touchdown run by Lorenzo Harrison got the Terps on the board one play later. Savage also blocked a punt, scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown later in the half, which trimmed the Hoosiers' lead to 16-14.
Durkin gushed over Savage after the 42-39 win against Indiana.
"Darnell, man, he's been tremendous for us, really all year long. He's been consistent," Durkin said. "… It just tells you, here's a guy that plays every snap of defense. I think he's been on every snap of defense this whole year, maybe except a handful [when] he was dinged up or something. And he always contributes on special teams, too."
Savage, meantime, said he doesn't pay attention to what he's personally done this season because he's focused on being a leader among the Terps' defensive backs. Savage said developing into a leader was difficult at first "because I'm not really a talker," but he has taken to leading by example with his effort on the practice field and watching film with other defensive backs. He learned about leadership from Davis, Hendy and Will Likely, whose old No. 4 jersey number Savage now wears.
"All those guys, they weren't necessarily … talkers, but they were always doers," Savage said. "You knew they were going to get their job done and they were going to put pressure on you to get yours done as well without doing a whole bunch of talking or yelling or screaming."
NOTES: Savage pointed out Deon Jones, a freshman defensive back, as someone who's caught his eye this year. Jones, one of the gems of Durkin's 2017 recruiting class, missed his senior season at Potomac High with a knee injury and hasn't played this season as he continues to work his way back. … Senior linebacker Shane Cockerille (Gilman) returned from a suspension to make two tackles during Maryland's 17-7 loss at Michigan State Nov. 18. Cockerille had missed the previous six games. … Junior receiver DJ Moore caught eight passes for 76 yards Nov. 18, leaving him 67 yards short of 1,000 receiving yards for the season with one game to play. … Maryland (4-7 overall, 2-6 in the Big Ten) will host Penn State (9-2, 6-2) at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 25 to close out its season.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox