As a high school football player, Maryland safety Darnell Savage Jr. was a force on both sides of the ball before a major injury suddenly sidelined him.
Savage broke his right femur during his junior year at Caravel Academy in Delaware, forcing the consensus three-star prospect to work relentlessly to come back for his final season stronger than ever and prove he was the same player he was before the injury.
"We talked about the grind to recover and to never panic," Caravel head coach John Reed said. "He's a hard worker, and he worked relentlessly to get back to where he was or even better. He was on a senior-season mission."
Savage worked with the Caravel training staff to return from the injury for the 2014 season. As a senior, Savage operated the wildcat formation and led his team to a two-touchdown victory against Episcopal Academy, the team Savage was playing against when he got hurt in 2013.
Operating the offense seamlessly, Savage proved he was a unique athlete -- one of the best Reed had ever coached. Savage's leadership and respect among his teammates also proved to be a key factor to his team's success during his entire high school career, according to Reed.
"We used to play him at receiver, running back, in the secondary. He was a special athlete," Reed said. "He always wanted the ball in his hands, and we were happy to do that."
After scoring 13 touchdowns on offense and making 54 tackles on defense as a senior at Caravel, Savage focused on defense upon arriving in College Park, Md. The program had stuck by his side throughout the recruiting process despite the injury. That loyalty was key when Savage ultimately made his college decision, according to a Baltimore Sun article from 2014.
Fast forward to 2018 and Savage is not only a leader on the Terps' defense but is considered one of the best safeties in the nation by some draft experts.
Savage was graded the fifth-best NFL safety prospect by Pro Football Focus entering the 2018 season. The football analytics website awarded him an 84.4 overall grade in pass coverage in 2017, which ranked sixth among safeties nationally that season.
Savage amassed 118 tackles, four interceptions, and broke up 12 passes from 2016-2017. Since the third game of his freshman campaign, Savage has been a constant in the starting lineup; he appeared in 36 straight games, including the last 26 as a starter, heading into the Terps' matchup against Temple Sept. 15.
During the Terps' 2018 season-opening victory against Texas Sept. 1, Savage contributed several solid tackles to limit the Longhorns to minor gains, and he offered stellar coverage on Texas' big, physical wide receivers. Savage also showed off his quick reflexes and athleticism by deflecting a pass from Longhorns sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger as the passer rolled to his left.
The Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders have already called Reed to discuss Savage. Reed had only good things to say to those teams about his former star, he said. If teams were to call Savage's former teammates, they might hear similar things.
After the Terps' 34-29 win against Texas, former teammate Jermaine Carter Jr. tweeted, "Best safety in the nation," and tagged Savage. Another former teammate, DJ Moore -- now a receiver with the Carolina Panthers -- agreed, tweeting, "We knew this already though."
Former Terps safety Denzel Conyers, who played with Savage from 2015-2017, also echoed those sentiments.
"No doubt he's the best safety, the best defensive back, in the nation," Conyers said in an interview with PressBox.
Savage has an innate skill on the football field that can't be taught, Conyers said. Savage picked off three passes during the 2017 season, one of which he returned 75 yards for a touchdown against Towson.
"He's a gifted athlete with this natural instinct to the ball," Conyers said. "Whether it's in the air or it's getting to the ball carrier, he's one of the best."
Additionally, Savage has always been a vocal leader on defense by calling out what he observes to help teammates diagnose the opposing offense, according to former Maryland cornerback Will Likely, who played with Savage from 2015-2016.
Before his junior season, Savage switched from No. 26 to No. 4 to honor Likely, previously one of the leaders on the Terps defense. Likely, who said Savage will make an impact in the NFL once he graduates, had no problem with the number change.
"I was excited for him, it's no sweat off my back and he wanted to step up," Likely said. "[Against Texas], he showed why he'll be one of the best in the league, so it's fine by me for him to have the number."
Amid a tumultuous offseason for the Maryland football program that included the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and head coach DJ Durkin being placed on administrative leave, the importance of a leader like Savage is paramount.
"He's a very committed young man who always bought in and helped lead from on the field," Reed said. "Kids in high school, and I believe at Maryland, look up to him and do it."
Even when Savage was an underclassman, Conyers and Likely saw Savage as quiet but intense and always eager to improve.
"He just works by example and always knew where he had to be," Conyers said. "You don't have to worry about him, he can independently execute."
Part of that leadership is the softer side of Savage, which is hard to see at first but easy to appreciate, Conyers said. Savage loves playing with his two dogs, joking around with teammates or doing some impersonations.
"He's goofy, he's a clown," Conyers said. "It's not even what he says; sometimes it's these facial expressions he makes."
That attitude makes Savage a great teammate with whom to talk and connect, according to Conyers, who added that the bond between Savage and his partners in the secondary is based on respect on and off the field. Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada, a longtime offensive coordinator, has already noted that talent during his first year in College Park.
"He's got a great eye for the football, he plays with great passion and he's back there keeping the secondary in line," Canada said. "He's a fun guy to be around, and we're fortunate to have him on our football team."
Issue 247: September 2018
Originally published Sept. 17, 2018