From the moment he first watched tape of Darnell Savage Jr. as a high school player in Delaware, Lee Hull knew he was looking at a prospect who was a lot better than his three-star rating indicated.
“When you’re evaluating student-athletes from a small school, you want them to jump out at you, and he did,” the former Maryland football assistant coach recalled Friday.
“Every game I turned on the film, he was the best player on the field and he dominated the competition. So whatever level you play at, you want to be able to dominate.”
Though Savage wasn’t a dominant player during his four seasons at Maryland — or even the best player on the field in many games — his steady rise in College Park and eventual breakout performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL scouting combine led to what happened Thursday night.
Amid increasing speculation that he had played his way from the fourth round into the first round, the 5-foot-11, 198-pound safety was picked No. 21 overall by the Green Bay Packers, who traded two fourth-round choices in order to move up from No. 30 to get Savage.
Savage was the first defensive back taken in the draft.
“The thing about Darnell, he’s gotten better every year,” said former Maryland assistant Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who coached Savage for most of his college career. “He’s been consistent the whole time, but he’s consistently gotten better.”
Abdul-Rahim, now the defensive coordinator at Massachusetts, recalled meeting Savage after his freshman year.
“He wasn’t overly confident about where he was,” Abdul-Rahim said. “I think once he had success in practice, once he had success his [sophomore] season, he just ran with it, bought totally in and realized that he could be a great player.”
Initially playing cornerback, Savage was eventually moved to nickel back and safety, first playing behind All-Big Ten player Will Likely and then eventually taking the position over when Likely suffered a season-ending torn ACL midway through his senior year in 2016.
“As we kind of changed defensively and philosophically, and you kind of want to get your best 11 guys on the field, he was one of those of guys,” Abdul-Rahim said. “He ended up moving to field safety and a nickel role, which I think helped him more than anything.”
Recalling seeing Savage as a high school player at Caravel Academy in Bear, Del., Hull said, “From day one, he worked like a pro. That was always his goal — to make it to the league. That’s the biggest thing that’s going for him. He’s got a big heart. He’s always got something to prove.”
Having “elite speed,” according to his former coaches, didn’t hurt Savage, and might have been one of the main reasons he was so highly coveted by NFL teams in an age when wide-open, downfield passing offenses dominate the game.
“He was always running people down on defense,” said Hull, who left Maryland to become head coach at Morgan State before Savage arrived in College Park and later worked for the Indianapolis Colts. “He proved it at the combine, at the Senior Bowl, that he could play with the elite players.”
Former Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart also played a role in recruiting Savage after Hull left. But Stewart left as well, going to Nebraska before Savage’s freshman season in 2015.
“If we weren’t in the Big Ten, I would have had him come with me to Nebraska,” said Stewart, now the defensive backs coach with the Detroit Lions. “I wanted him to play nickel, not safety. When Lee showed him to me, the reason why I wanted him was that he was fast and athletic. He reminded me of Will Likely.”
Stewart envisioned Savage as he did Likely, whose lack of height became one of his biggest roadblocks — along with the knee injury he sustained as a senior — to an NFL career. Likely, whose jersey number Savage inherited his last two seasons, is now in the Canadian Football League.
Stewart said when Savage arrived at Maryland, he was only a little bigger than the 5-foot-7 Likely. When he saw Savage at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, the 5-10 Stewart recalled Savage joking, “Either I grew or you shrunk.”
It is the same kind of versatility Likely demonstrated during his college career that attracted the pro scouts to Savage, Stewart said.
“I think he’s going to play some safety, and he’s going to play in the box. They can utilize him a lot of different ways,” Stewart said. “He’s kind of a Swiss Army knife, that’s kind of why [the Lions] liked him also. I’m not sure where [the Packers] will play him, but he’ll fit in. They’re athletic, they’re fast, they play a lot of man coverage. It should be a good mix for him.”
Said Abdul-Rahim: “He has a unique skill set. Not too many guys can play every position in the secondary. … The game has changed so much that the field safety has to have a corner skill set. … He’s going to be one of the most versatile [defensive backs] in the league.”