Dionte Savage spent his freshman year for the Arizona Western football team blocking for standout running back Damien Williams.
Last season, Williams headed to Oklahoma, where he was the leading rusher with 946 yards and 11 touchdowns. When Williams likely returns for his senior season for the Sooners, he's going to have a familiar blocker in front of him.
Savage signed his letter of intent to play for Oklahoma on Wednesday and is one of 12 Matadors to commit to a four-year college for next season. Eleven of them signed with Division I schools — eight Football Bowl Subdivision and three Football Championship Subdivision — and one player committed to a Division II school.
“You don't win the Kentucky Derby riding a mule,” Matador coach Tom Minnick said about his talented group that is moving on. “And you can see by the 16 we got signed, there's not another junior college out there that has this type of signing day with this many kids going big time.”
Four other Matadors — tight ends Greg Reese and Emmanuel Bibbs, linebacker/defensive end Sam Wren and defensive back Cassius Sendish — signed their letters of intent in December.
Savage, fullback Demont Buice (Florida A&M), tight end Cameron Clear (Texas A&M), defensive tackle Chris Cormier (Indiana), defensive end/linebacker Randy Gregory (Nebraska), linebacker D'Vante Henry (West Virginia), linebacker Jeff Lark (Wyoming), running back DeSean Martin (Chowan), quarterbacks Tanner McEvoy (Wisconsin) and Cedric McCloud (Southern), tight end Austin Morgan (Arkansas-Monticello) and cornerback Nate Willis (Kentucky) each signed on Wednesday.
“We pride ourselves — on when we recruit our kid — to be able to get him out academically, and the proof is in the pudding with these kids,” Minnick said. “Seventeen last year that went Division I that are all there and they all made it.”
For Savage, life after Arizona Western means both being reunited with Williams and the chance to play in the limelight of college football. Last year, the Sooners finished 10-3 and played in the Cotton Bowl.
“I've been talking with Damien every day now, talking about our future plans and talking about me blocking for him again,” Savage said. “Oklahoma is about business. I mean, hey, they win games and that's what I want to do.”
Gregory ended up signing with Nebraska, which went 10-4 and played in the Capital One Bowl, despite missing nearly the entire season because of an injury. The week after the first game, Gregory broke his ankle during practice and didn't play in a game the rest of the way — but still wowed the storied Huskers to take a chance on him.
“I told coaches who were recruiting him that he was the best defensive player in the nation at JC football,” Minnick said. “They were going to take that chance on him. When you watch the film on him last year in the national championship of him running kids down and making plays all over the place, he was considered one of the top ones.
“He could have gone anywhere he wanted and he wanted to go to Nebraska and play in the Big Ten so his family could watch him play.”
Many of the players praised Minnick for giving them a shot and recognized that by going to Arizona Western, they were taking the back route to end up playing Division I.
“Over the summer, I put in a lot of work because Minnick would tell me it was going to happen for me,” Savage said. “But at first I wasn't believing until I saw my hard work paying off. Then all the schools started talking to me and my recruiting started going crazy.”
For McCloud, who became a backup under McEvoy, the opportunity to go to Southern means to play in Baton Rogue, La. — where, as home also to Louisiana State, they are crazy about their football.
“They have fans that travel a long ways to the games. The stadium is always packed,” said McCloud, who transferred to AWC from Kent State. “I heard they turn people around because it's too packed. Just that environment, it's crazy. It's played into (my decision) a lot.”
Martin, who is playing at Chowan University with his brother, Ryon, spent his first season without a carry and started last year on the bench. He said there were times where even the opportunity to sign with a Division II team like the Hawks seemed out of the question.
“There were so many times when I was on the bench thinking, ‘Dang, it's all over for me. How am I going to get to the next step?' That's all that was going through my head every day. How am I going to support my mom?
“Now, I'm sitting here looking at my $20,000 scholarship — I'm just seeing all the zeros and I just thank God about it. This is the best feeling I could have just to earn my scholarship. I'm not even thinking about football, I'm thinking about my education. I'm getting a free education behind football.”