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How Savon Scarver became scary good for the Aggies

LOGAN — As part of its conditioning program this summer, the Utah State football team has been gathering near the bottom of Old Main Hill some mornings and then racing up the grassy bluff again and again.

Beloved by gravity-aided sledders and ice-blockers, Old Main Hill has conversely been cursed for decades by many USU students running late for class. But when asked how he feels about running up steep hillsides, Aggie return specialist/wide receiver Savon Scarver simply smiles and replies, “Honestly, that’s how I got fast.”

A native of Las Vegas, Scarver and a couple of other middle-school friends would get together during the offseason below a grassy hill near Palo Verde High. Even with the temperature flirting with triple-digits, they’d practice some footwork drills or power jumps on the lower portion of the hill, then sprint up the rest of the way.

“I would say it was about 40 yards up, and it’s definitely really, really steep,” Scarver says. “The incline is definitely crazy.”

Scarver recalls playing in a game in eighth grade and being sent on a go route. Even though the defensive back was playing 10 yards off him, he says he still blew by him with ease. And he knew why.

“I was like, 'Yeah, that hill is definitely doing something for me,'” Scarver says.

Utah State wide receiver Savon Scarver (81) attempts to get past Hawaii defensive back Kai Kaneshiro (24) in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Honolulu.
Utah State wide receiver Savon Scarver (81) attempts to get past Hawaii defensive back Kai Kaneshiro (24) in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Honolulu.
Eugene Tanner, Associated Press

And it’s still doing something for the Aggies, who have benefitted greatly from the junior-to-be’s speed the past two seasons. After averaging 24.0 yards per kickoff return in 2017, Scarver exploded on the national scene during Utah State’s 12-2 campaign in 2018, averaging 33.7 yards per return while also returning two kicks for touchdowns.

Those heady numbers elevated the 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior onto just about every first team all-star squad in the country, and left Scarver as just the third Aggie in school history (along with Merlin and Phil Olsen) to be honored with consensus All-American status.

He was also named the winner of the Johnny “The Jet” Award as the top return specialist in the nation, making him the guest of honor at a gala event in Omaha, Nebraska, in April, where he rubbed shoulders with former NFL star return specialists like Dante Hall, Rick Upchurch and Mel Gray.

“It was a really cool experience. I was really nervous at first, but everybody was nice and they taught me a lot,” Scarver says. “It’s always cool to be able to talk to people that have been there and done that.”

A standout wide receiver at Centennial High, Scarver was being looked at by UCLA after his junior year until abruptly falling off the Bruins’ radar following a coaching change. Although some Mountain West and Pac-12 schools continued to show interest, Scarver insists he “was just going with the flow and was going to do whatever God wanted me to do” until his quarterback at Centennial committed to playing at Utah State.

Although he is no longer with the program, Jamaal Evans helped orchestrate the recruiting of Scarver by former Aggie coach Matt Wells and wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight. Those efforts proved fruitful when Wells, in the midst of Scarver's lone recruiting trip, walked up to him in the USU locker room and declared, “I’m an Aggie coach.”

“I said, ‘I’m coming here,' and that was that. Ever since then, I’ve been an Aggie. I absolutely loved it up here during my visit, and I knew it was the place for me.”

While he played a limited role as a receiver during his freshman season in 2017 (11 receptions for 240 yards and one touchdown), Scarver’s confidence as a collegiate kickoff returner continued to grow throughout the year until it peaked in the first quarter of the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.

“Before our first kickoff return, I kept telling A.B. (Alex Byers), ‘I’m going to turn it up, man! I’m going to turn it up!'” Scarver recalls. “I was so anxious. I couldn’t stay still.”

The result of all that enthusiasm was a 96-yard return for a touchdown that fired up the Aggies, but only for a painfully short period of time. Moments later, New Mexico State’s Jason Huntley took the subsequent kickoff back 100 yards for a score of his own, and NMSU eventually won the game, 26-20, in overtime.

“It felt so good after I scored, but then I saw that cat from New Mexico and I was like, ‘Awwwww, how’d y’all let this happen?’” Scarver says. “We had never let anybody score on a kickoff return on us.

“… It was crazy. That was a crazy game. That game still makes me mad. I’m supposed to have two rings.”

Scarver certainly did his part to give the Aggies another shot at a bowl ring in 2018, delivering a 100-yard TD return of his own in the lopsided rematch with New Mexico State on Sept. 8, as well as a 99-yard score at Wyoming on Oct. 10. While he says he enjoyed the return during the 60-13 rout of NMSU at home — “It felt amazing. Hearing that crowd roar in the Mav is what I live for. I love that noise!” — Scarver points out that the touchdown in Laramie was much more vital.

Although Utah State ended up winning the game, 24-16, the Aggie offense was suffering through its worst outing of the season when Scarver broke loose to stake the guests to a 17-6 lead with four minutes left in the third quarter. Scarver says he remembers thinking the Wyoming kicker had already made a huge mistake when the ball ended up in the middle of the field, but then teammate Jalen Greene “took out the first due and sprung me.”

“We really needed that,” Scarver continues. “It was still a close game, but after that I feel like the weight was kind of taken off our shoulders and everyone on the team had a little more confidence that we were going to come out of there with a win.”

While he plans to have even greater success as a returner in 2019, Scarver also wants to be more of a factor as a wide receiver under new head coach Gary Andersen and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford after catching nine passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns last season. He says he’s been focusing on letting bad plays go immediately, as well as improving his ability to come down with balls in traffic.

Of course, Scarver will also likely benefit from having junior quarterback Jordan Love throwing him the football again.

“Jordan is one of a kind,” Scarver says. “I played with him a lot as a freshman on the twos and threes when he was behind Kent Myers and he was great then. But he’s just taking things to another level now. He knows what to do when he has the ball in his hands, and I’ve always had a lot of trust in him.

“He’s a great quarterback, and he can definitely make things happen for this team.”

Utah State wide receiver Savon Scarver (81) stiff arms Air Force defensive back Bryce VonZurmuehlen (21) on a kickoff return during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Logan, Utah.
Utah State wide receiver Savon Scarver (81) stiff arms Air Force defensive back Bryce VonZurmuehlen (21) on a kickoff return during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

And so can the speedy Scarver, who nonetheless carefully admits he might not be the fastest man on his team — at least at certain distances. He suggests that teammates like senior running back Gerold Bright or sophomore wide receiver Deven Thompkins might beat him in the 40, “But I’m confident I’m going to win in the 100,” Scarver says with a laugh.

But then Scarver, who took first in state in the 110-meter hurdles as a junior in high school, isn’t afraid of overcoming an obstacle or two along the way when he competes, whether it’s hurdles or a massive hill.

Or even something more concrete.

Shortly after relocating from Ohio to Las Vegas with his mother, Celeste, and older sister, Scarver emerged as a standout stakeboarder while in his early teens.

“I was a sponsored skateboarder, and I used to have all sorts of videos on YouTube and all that,” he declares.

Surely coming as a relief to his past and current football coaches, Scarver says once he decided to focus on other sports, he “threw my skateboard away and deleted everything off of YouTube.” But that doesn’t mean skateboarding still didn’t play a role in his development as a football player.

“I feel like skateboarding helped me a lot because every time you do a trick on a skateboard, it’s either all or nothing and you can really get hurt,” Scarver explains. “It’s just like football, where each play could be your last play.

“Skateboarding helped me to learn to overcome my fears because I did some stuff that was real scary. And it also taught me to set my mind to something and not quit on it until I could do it, even if it meant hours and hours of trying the same trick over and over again.”