The longest yards finally completed for Pitt quarterback

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There were times Tom Savage thought about quitting.

Thought about hanging up his cleats and deciding that football just wasn't meant to be.

Would you blame him? Football, with an assist from the NCAA, had taken Savage 2,000 miles from his home in Springfield, Pa., and back again without once playing a single competitive snap.

Even when it seemed he would never see the light at the end of the tunnel, Savage kept going. Sometimes it took a well-timed call to his parents or older brother, but he knew today would eventually come. And it would be worth it.

Savage's two-year journey through college football purgatory will come to an end when Pitt opens its spring camp today. Savage, a fifth-year senior who hasn't played since his sophomore season at Rutgers in 2010, will open practice as one of the favorites to win the Panthers' vacant quarterback job.

"I think he's really excited," quarterback coach Brooks Bollinger said. "I think he's worked really hard this offseason, kind of had a lot of buildup because it has been awhile for him. My biggest thing as his coach right now is just saying, 'Hey man, it doesn't all rest on [today].' "

The road that led Savage to Pitt started four years ago in Piscataway, N.J. As a true freshman, he started 11 games for the Scarlet Knights and was named the team's most valuable offensive player. Named to the freshman All-American team, it looked as if Savage was set for a long career at Rutgers.

But a hand injury sidelined him in 2010, and he never regained the starting job. After the season, he announced his intention to transfer to Arizona.

"At the time, I was young, bitter, and I just wanted to prove myself and get back on the field," Savage said. "As a competitor, I wanted to keep playing. I figured that maybe taking a year off and redshirting would be the best thing for me, going elsewhere to get a fresh start."

He sat out the 2011 season with an eye on playing for the Wildcats in 2012, but was forced to adjust his plan again in late 2011. Rich Rodriguez had been hired as Arizona's new coach, and Savage -- a pro-style quarterback -- looked like a square peg in a round hole in Rodriguez's spread offense.

So, he decided to transfer again, a decision, he said, that revolved more around the desire to be close to home to tend to his ailing aunt.

"I guess everything was pushing me to come home," he said.

Initially, Savage thought about returning to Rutgers. He applied for a waiver with the NCAA that would allow him to play in the 2012 season, but it was denied. His final remaining option was to walk on to a team in 2012 and have one year of eligibility left this season.

"It was a killer," Savage's father, Tom, Sr., said. "We knew going down [to Arizona] that he was going to have to sit one. Then coming back, to sit another one was just really a gut-wrencher."

Savage also considered Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State before eventually settling on Pitt. While location and stability also played a factor, the main reason Savage chose the Panthers was newly hired head coach Paul Chryst.

Savage was well aware of Chryst's accolades as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, where he turned one-year quarterback Russell Wilson into an NFL draft pick.

"I saw that he gives a one-year player an opportunity to compete," Savage said. "He did that with Russell Wilson. I know it's tough because some teams like to establish their future for four years, but I think coach Chryst really lets it be whoever the best man is plays. That's all anybody can really ask for."

When Savage arrived at Pitt in the summer, the work was just beginning. He said walking into camp not knowing what the future held was the hardest part for him on his journey, and that's when he most often needed to turn to his friends and family for support.

"You can't quit," Tom, Sr., recalls telling his son. "You'll look back later on in life. You'll be very disappointed, when you have a kid, telling him you quit. You just can't do that. It's not really an option."

In practice, Savage served as the scout-team quarterback. He mimicked the opposing team's offense against Pitt's first-team defense.

On game days, Savage stood on the sideline at Heinz Field trying to help out however he could. For road games, he became just another fan watching the game at his apartment or with his family.

Like every other Pitt fan, he remembers screaming during the heartbreaking triple-overtime loss at Notre Dame.

"My parents had to leave because I was just freaking out," he said.

As the season came to a close, the realization that his long wait was almost over.

With three-year starter Tino Sunseri graduating, Savage will compete this spring and fall primarily against redshirt freshman Chad Voytik for the starting job.

Bollinger said all four quarterbacks -- including junior Trey Anderson and true freshman Tra'von Chapman -- will get plenty of reps in the spring. Savage and Voytik, though, appear to be the lead contenders.

Listed at 6 feet 5, Savage is a tall, big-armed, pro-style quarterback. Voytik, originally recruited by former coach Todd Graham, is more of a mobile threat.

Savage said he's prepared to be the backup if that's what the coaching staff opts for, but obviously hopes he's the one leading the Panthers out on the field against Florida State in their opener in the fall.

"I get chills thinking about it now," his father said.

"It's been a long road for my son Thomas."

If he does win the starting job, the bright lights of Heinz Field on Labor Day night will be the literal light at the end of the figurative tunnel for Savage. He's a long way from those phone calls where he thought about giving it all up.

"It was a tough spot," Savage said. "But I knew I could get through it and I did. It's gonna be a fun season now."

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Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @SWernerPG.


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