GREEN BAY – It was an off-the-cuff remark that wasn’t said in an arrogant or braggadocious manner.
But it reflected how safety Darnell Savage sees his game a little differently than some outside observers.
Asked after his first Packers rookie minicamp practice last week what he brings to Green Bay’s defense, Savage easily could have pointed to his 4.36 speed and its impact on the field.
Instead, he said, “My brain is what really stands out.”
He talked about his speed, too, but the 5-foot-11, 198-pounder was making it clear that his smarts allow his speed to be maximized. Put another way, there are those who run fast, and those who play fast. Savage would like to think he’s both, because he has a sharp mind to go with top-of-the-charts athleticism.
Which leads to Savage’s goal with regard to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s playbook, as the first-round and 21st overall draft pick the Packers traded up to select looks to step in as a Day 1 starter.
“Just being able to know what’s going on everywhere, not just your position, but kind of what everyone is doing,” Savage said. “Everybody has to be on the same page. I really pride myself in knowing what everybody is doing already, even in college I prided myself on that. So, I just think everybody being able to know what everyone’s doing, you can play a lot faster.”
Learning everyone’s responsibility in an NFL playbook is a tall order. But Savage is smart enough – both to get there and to know he won’t get there overnight.
He’ll find the help he needs, just like he did at Maryland. As a freshman at College Park, Savage quickly latched on to fellow defensive back Will Likely, an All-Big Ten player, and absorbed everything he could.
By the end of his sophomore year, he had taken over Likely’s combination nickelback and safety spot when his mentor suffered a torn ACL. The next year, he started wearing Likely’s No. 4 for the Terrapins, and he went on to intercept seven passes over his last two college seasons.
“He just kind of took me under his wing and taught me a lot,” Savage said of Likely, who was most recently in the CFL. “That’s my big brother, I still talk to him. I really look up to him and it was kind of like a passing of the torch.”
Defensive backs can’t wear No. 4 in the NFL – and no one gets to wear it in Green Bay from now on anyway – so he’s back to the No. 26 jersey he wore his first two years at Maryland.
If he’s looking for a similar mentor in the Packers’ locker room, he has options. Veteran defensive back Tramon Williams played in Pettine’s system with Cleveland before returning to Green Bay last year and possesses an endless supply of knowledge, both of the scheme and what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
Veteran safety Adrian Amos, a key free-agent signing in March, will be right by Savage’s side, too. While Amos will be learning a new playbook, too, he’s fresh off playing for one of the league’s top defenses in Chicago.
“It means the world to have a guy that you can go to and ask him questions,” Savage said. “He’s been there, he’s played at the highest level, he’s seen it all.”
Savage plans to be able to say that about himself someday, to show he was worth the two fourth-round picks the Packers sacrificed to get him.
But for now it’s one step at a time, and the first step is learning the defense, applying the smarts. That’s what will make his speed matter.
“Knowing what you’re doing and being able to be comfortable while you’re on the field, you can tell because it’s played really fast,” he said. “I just think running 4.36 is a little extra. I’m blessed with that.”
“I feel like we have a lot of smart, talented football players on this team, on this defense. I feel like I kind of fit that.”