College Park — From the earliest age, Darnell Savage Jr. has exceeded expectations.
It began when his father, Darnell Sr., helped organize a youth tackle football league in his hometown of Seaford, Del., and put his then-7-year-old son up against bigger and stronger kids a year or two older.
“He was always super athletic. He was super fast,” recalled Darnell Sr., a former offensive lineman at Delaware State. “He’s always been a chaser. He’s always had a lot of confidence in himself.”
It continued when Darnell Jr. went to play high school ball at Caravel Academy, close to the University of Delaware. By the time Savage was a sophomore, when he helped the team to a state championship, word had spread to college recruiters.
“Nebraska was in the building, Penn State, he had them all there,” recalled John Reed, who was Savage’s coach his last three years in high school. “I think he had 16 to 18 scholarship offers. It was a traffic jam in the school to see him."
The gridlock eased when Savage broke his leg and dislocated his knee early in his junior year. Though he came back to lead Caravel Academy to the state semifinals as a senior, many of the early suitors had moved on.
“When he got injured, a lot of the bigger schools, they sort of disappeared,” Darnell Sr. said. “Maryland never stopped calling. Maryland was always in contact with him, and that meant something to him. It meant something to all of us.”
Darnell Sr. recalled something he told the younger of his two sons when Penn State again showed some late interest.
“I told him, ‘Son, it’s not who wants you when you’re healthy. It’s who wants you when you’re down,’ ” the elder Savage said. “I said, ‘Always stick with somebody that wants to be with you when things aren’t going as well as you think.’ That was a big decision.”
The injury also helped Savage think about his football future.
“It was rough, being at such a pivotal point in my life,” Savage told reporters at the NFL scouting combine. “That’s when recruiting really [had] started picking up for me. To have something like that happen, it takes a toll on your mental side. I think it made me a better player, person, family member, friend.
“In the end, though, I think I really matured after that happened. I really looked at the game a little differently. In any instance, it can be taken away from you. I thank God every day that it happened to me. I think it’s helped me improve.”
Now, having gone from being a three-star recruit — largely because of the injury — to a second-team All-Big Ten player as a senior at Maryland last season, he’s about to exceed expectations again.
After barely getting any attention going into the combine, Savage became one of its breakout performers, helped by having one of the fastest times (4.36 seconds) in the 40-yard dash.
Along with the tape from an impressive college career — when he finished with 181 tackles and eight interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns — Savage is projected to be selected in the second round, and possibly as high as late in the first round, in the 2019 NFL draft.
“There's no player that's got more steam and momentum right now in this draft than Darnell Savage,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for the NFL Network and former Ravens scout. “Teams love him, love him to the point where I would not be surprised if he found his way into the first round. The only thing he's lacking is just kind of ideal size, a little bit undersized, but he ran 4.3 [40-yard dash], he plays to that 4.3. I would say absolutely he's a top-40 pick, and I think he's got a real chance to sneak into the first round.”
It doesn’t surprise the 5-foot-11, 198-pound Savage, who is as low-key and soft-spoken off the field as he is high-energy and hard-hitting on it.
“I’ve never doubted myself, and the people around me never doubted me,” Savage said on Maryland’s Pro Day in late March. “I’ve been proving people wrong my whole life. … I continue to be myself and have that confidence in myself.”
ESPN analyst Todd McShay ranks Savage among the top six safeties in this year’s draft, behind only Mississippi State’s Jonathan Abram and Washington’s Taylor Rapp, ahead of more touted players such as Alabama's Deionte Johnson and Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
“I just love watching his tape,” McShay said on a recent teleconference. “He’s a first-responder guy. He’s always right there when a play needs to be made. Every time you see the ball and play finish, it seems like he’s in on the play.”
Asked if Savage’s performance at the combine helped raise his stock as happened last year with former Maryland receiver DJ Moore, McShay said many knew long before Savage got to Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.
“For some coaches who were late in the process, I think it helped catch some people’s eye, but his tape is really good,” McShay said. “He’s just a really good football player.”
Savage, who said he has run as fast as a 4.27 in the 40, wasn’t surprised by what he did in Indianapolis.
“I knew I was capable of it,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of other people knew. I was just doing what I’ve been doing, just working hard, just letting everything handle itself.”
When Reed heard about what his former star had done during the combine, it brought him back to the early part of Savage’s career in high school.
“Even during warmups, the other coaches would say, ‘He looks different than everybody else.’ Just the way he moves, his hip movement, the way he closes, his acceleration, it’s just different,” Reed said. “He had a whole ’nother speed that most kids would never see.”
Reed said the most impressive thing about Savage is his character.
“He was a special kid, we certainly loved having him," Reed said. “He was a hard worker, he was very quiet, but he was always there to work. … He’s a very humble young man. He was raised the right way.”
The whirlwind of the past few months will end next week, when Savage hears his name called. While most mock drafts have Savage going early in the third round, McShay said, “He doesn’t get out of the second round in my opinion.”
As is his nature, Savage doesn’t get too caught up in the newfound hype.
“I’m just kind of enjoying the process,” he said last month. “I know I’m doing everything I can to put myself in the best position I can. I can’t control whatever happens, at the end of the day. As long as I continue to work hard and just do the right things on and off the field, things will work out.”
TV: ABC, ESPN, NFL Network
Round 1 begins Thursday at 8 p.m.; Rounds 2-3 on Friday at 7 p.m.; Rounds 4-7 on Saturday at 2 p.m.