Strong start: Gators’ Savage on college football fast track

Boardman grad is University of Florida’s strength coach

By Brian Dzenis

There wasn’t time to hire somebody else.

In December of 2015, Boardman graduate Nick Savage was helping Mississippi State’s football team prepare for the Belk Bowl as an assistant strength coach. It was his second year with a job title that didn’t have the words graduate or intern in it.

At about the same time roughly 900 miles away from Starkville, Miss., in College Park, Md., another Boardman native — D.J. Durkin — became the head coach of Maryland’s football team. One of the hires he made to fill out his staff was the Bulldogs’ head strength coach, Rick Court.

Hiring a coach is a three-week process at Mississippi State and with the Belk Bowl coming up in that same time period, then-head coach Dan Mullen decided to hand the reins to the 26-year-old Savage.

“[Mullen] stuck his neck out there, but coach doesn’t do things just to do things. He crosses dots his i’s. Everything has to be exactly right,” Savage said. “For a lot of other people, it was a surprise, but him spending two years with me as an assistant gave him some trust.

“Through bowl prep, it lived up to his standards.”

Savage didn’t go crazy with his first time at the wheel of a strength and conditioning program for a Southeastern Conference team, not changing too much from what Court was doing before he left. Mississippi State won its bowl game against N.C. State, 51-28, and on the plane ride back home from Charlotte, Mullen summoned Savage to the front of the plane. The job was his.

Mullen and Savage have a good relationship to this day. When Mullen took the Florida job this past winter, he brought Savage with him as his director of football strength and conditioning. He’s not even 30 and he’s at his fifth stop in college football.

“It’s been kind of like a rocket-ship ride,” Savage said. “It normally doesn’t happen that fast, but I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with a lot of great coaches. Opportunities came up with good mentorship and I took advantage of those opportunities.”

He became an assistant with the Spartans not long after graduating from Boardman, doing so while studying engineering at Youngstown State.

“I always liked to train myself. I loved football and I was coaching on the field and in the weight room in high school,” Savage said. “After three years [of engineering at YSU], I said ‘I’m too bored. I’m going to commit to being a strength coach.’

“I threw all my eggs in one basket and took it head on.”

He served as intern for Bowling Green and Ohio State before spending a season as a graduate assistant with Toledo. Court met Savage when he was an assistant strength coach at Ohio State and he helped bring him to Mississippi State.

After the head coach, the person on the coaching staff who will be subject of a viral video or story is the strength coach, who can get recognized for over-the-top motivational tactics. Some examples from Savage’s peers last year include Alabama’s Scott Cochran smashing the College Football Playoff runner-up trophy with a sledgehammer and his then-assistant, Aaron Feld, earning meme status while sporting a waxed old-timey mustache.

Savage is not planning any high-profile stunts in Gainesville.

“I don’t want to draw attention to myself, because that’s not what it’s about,” Savage said. “It’s all about the kids. Whatever those guys may need, that’s what I give them.

“I’ll say that we’re definitely high-energy and high-enthusiasm — we call it ‘juice,’” he added.

“Everything we do will be fast and upbeat. We won’t even let the kids walk slow around our building.”

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