Off-field changes allow Ja'Quay Savage to display skills on-field for Louisville

Bobby Petrino says Ja'Quay Savage has a better understanding of the Cardinals' offense this spring. AP Photo/Garry Jones

Ja’Quay Savage knew his skill set was right there with everyone else’s. He would make big plays when the opportunities came his way, both at Texas A&M in 2013 and last year at Louisville.

Off the field, though, things were far from crystal clear. Late for class. Late for team meetings. Watching TV and falling asleep when he’d get home. Why should this matter, the receiver thought. How does non-football stuff affect him in others’ eyes, he’d wonder.

So late last season, he made a conscious decision to clean up that part of his life. And he immediately saw the dividends this spring, emerging as the reliable force his Cardinals teammates and coaches knew he could be.

“I was like, it has to be something else, it’s more than football,” Savage said. “You have to do everything right instead of just going out there in football and go outside the football field and not having the responsibilities that you’re supposed to. So everything just goes into it, and it just woke me up when I was talking to my mom and started reading the Bible and just doing everything right. [It] just makes you feel better when you go to practice and scrimmages.”

Savage described the previous version of himself as a high school player stuck in college. He was raised in a religious family, but he said he could count on one hand how many times he actually went to church on his own while growing up.

With the help of his mother, Felicia, he rededicated himself to his Christian faith. He sought guidance on understanding certain Bible verses better. He bonded with team chaplain Chris Morgan, and together they read scripture before each of the final three games of last season.

That devotion bled into the winter months, leading to a strong spring for the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder. Savage had just 12 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown last season — his first with the Cards after sitting out 2014 as a Texas A&M transfer — but Louisville is counting on the former four-star prospect to provide a jolt to an offense looking to take the next step in quarterback Lamar Jackson’s second year.

“I thought he did a really nice job of focusing and concentrating on knowing the offense better, which really allowed him to play faster,” coach Bobby Petrino said of Savage. “This is really the fastest he's played since he's been here as far as the speed on his routes, running with the football after the catch. He's a big, strong guy [who] has a lot of ability so I'm looking forward to him having a great season for us.”

Savage’s new end-of-day routine is far more simple: Immediately take a shower, then sink into the playbook. Sometimes that means just scanning to re-familiarize himself with the plays before the next day’s work. Other times that means making notecards and cheat sheets to absorb as much as possible.

In either case, the habits make coming to the field a far smoother process.

“When you use your playbook every night, you go in with confidence and you know it confidently,” Savage said. “So just being a good teammate, making sure my receivers see me go fast every play again, because if I don’t go fast or if I’m going half-speed, they look: ‘Oh, I guess I can take off, too. I’m tired, too.’

“But when I go hard every play, it makes the young guys wanna go hard every single play, and that’s how we get better as a group.”

Savage has enjoyed being tutored this spring by new position coach Lonnie Galloway, whom the redshirt junior described as a disciplinarian on and off the field. Savage can’t wait to pick things up again this season with the “electric” Jackson, whose exploits as an 18-year-old last season have all wondering what’s in-store next.

To take advantage of all of that, though, Savage first had to take control of his own life. And his only regret is not doing it sooner.

“Just doing everything right, counting on something else, putting your belief in something else — it takes a lot of stress off of you,” Savage said. “It just basically changed my life, and I’d been missing out on a lot. I wish I would’ve opened the Bible years ago.”