COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Just before cornerback Will Likely departed College Park for the next stage of his life and football career, the diminutive defensive back asked his understudy, junior Darnell Savage, if he was going to take his No. 4 jersey number. It seemed fitting considering Savage, who mimics the 5-foot-8 Likely in stature, basically learned the finer points of the position from the former Terps’ lockdown defender.
“Will just asked me out of the blue one day – ‘Are you going to get No. 4?’” said the 5-10, 187-pound safety Savage. “I wasn’t really sure about it, but one day I went to Coach [D.J.] Durkin and asked him about it. Then, I came to my locker one day after that and there it was – No. 4.
“I mean, Will was like a big brother to me and I learned a lot from him. I guess it was kind of like a passing of the torch.”
Likely and Savage were roommates during their two years together in College Park, and they became good friends. The two remain in touch quite a bit to this day, with Savage checking on Likely’s NFL prospects and Likely gauging Savage’s progress at UMD.
“He always told me, even when I was a freshman, ‘Don’t try to be like me – try to be better than me,’” Savage said. “He’s just always pushed me to do better. He instilled confidence in me, and a lot of instincts and smarts.
“Like, I’ve improved on the little things as far as preparation, learning to watch film, things like that. I really didn’t know what to look for last year when watching film, but Will really helped me with that.”
Last year certainly did take some adjusting for Savage, and not just because he was slotted to start in the defensive backfield. The former three-star corner from Caravel (Del.) made the switch to safety before the season, and while he wasn’t always consistent, he performed fairly well for his first go-around at the position.
Savage ended up with 59 tackles, which ranked third on the squad, four breakups; and a pick. He recorded the interception on Dec. 26 against Boston College, had a career-high 11 tackles against Nebraska; and had a career-high two pass defensives against Rutgers.
“It was a good move,” Savage said. “When you’re playing corner, you’re out there on an island, and you really don’t have to know what everyone else on the defense is going. But you can get away with it out there [at corner]. But at safety, it forces me to focus up and learn where everyone else is going to be. It’s actually helped me learn the defense better.”
It’ll help Savage even more that his other mentor, senior safety Denzel Conyers, will be back for one more season. Conyers was granted a medical redshirt in March, meaning both of Maryland’s starting safeties at the beginning of 2016 should be teaming up again in 2017.
“It was rough for [Conyers]. We weren’t really sure if he was going to get [the extra year] or not, because it was kind of in-between. But when he got it, it was like getting your big brother back,” Savage said. “He’s clearly the oldest in the room, and he brings experience; wisdom; and knowledge. He’s played with a lot of different people and knows a lot about the game.”
Besides Conyers, Savage said he sees a lot of potential in Maryland’s young, up-and-coming defensive backs. He said all of them are pushing the starters each day.
“It’s fun to watch us play right now,” Savage said. “Everyone is competing at a high level, which is only going to help us get even better.”