Nov 12, 2013, 2:13 PM EDT
On a Friday afternoon in mid-October, a familiar face roamed the halls of the University of New Hampshire’s football offices. The Wildcats had just finished a walk-through practice in preparation for a big game versus Villanova and I’d just overheard a conversation about UNH’s chances against the visiting Wildcats.
“We just have to control the ground game and line of scrimmage. If we limit our mistakes on offense and try to score every time we get the ball, we’ll be fine.”
The speaker was not head coach Sean McDonnell but none other than Ricky Santos, one of the most heralded UNH and CAA Football players of all-time. This time, however, though he sounded and acted just as he had during his playing days, Santos was speaking as a member of the New Hampshire coaching staff.
Still, it was difficult to tell the difference.
Now 29, Santos is in his first season as the Wildcats’ wide receivers coach following a brief professional career. After graduating, he originally signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 before heading north for stints with three different Canadian Football League teams.
As many CAA Football fans remember, Santos is known for essentially coming out of nowhere. His is a story of a third-string quarterback at the beginning of the 2004 season who would ultimately become a four-year starter and three-time All-American, helping rebuild the New Hampshire football program along the way.
“I got released by Montreal and then Toronto in consecutive weeks, so I tried to figure out what my next step was,” Santos said. “I came up to UNH a couple months later in the winter to watch a basketball game, and I saw Coach McDonnell and we started chatting. I let him know what I was thinking next – about getting into coaching – and it happened to be that the wide receiver coach was leaving and it worked out perfectly.
Santos was hired on March 1, 2013.
“I used to call Coach McDonnell before every single game. Probably Friday night, usually right around when he would be finished with his pre-game speech to see how it went, how the nerves were and what the pulse of the team was.”
Nerves were something that Santos learned to handle quite early in his playing career after being thrust into the Wildcats’ starting role under center one fateful September night in Newark, Del.
Coming off a 5-7 season the season before, the Wildcats were expected to be competitive in 2004, but no one, Santos included, could have predicted what would transpire over the course of that game and the ensuing season.
After all, Delaware was the defending national champion and celebrated its 2003 title prior to the evening’s home-opener versus the Wildcats. Santos, meanwhile, was forced to dress for the game as an emergency second-stringer. Things changed when UNH starting signal caller Mike Granieri went down with a knee injury in the second quarter.
“Yeah, I may have misplaced my helmet,” said Santos, whose first play of the game wasn’t exactly scripted. “We had to call a timeout and Chip Kelly was screaming at me.”
Fast-forward to the end of that contest, one in which Santos finished 10-of-11 passing for 146 yards and one TD, with the lone score coming on a pass to David Ball late in the fourth quarter to seal a stunning 24-21 victory.
“That’s all in the past now and it’s great to look back on,” added Santos. “A lot of my teammates and I were a part of something special, building the program to where it is today.”
This success is certainly evidenced in where the program is now and the degree to which Santos has developed in his first season as an assistant coach.
“You have to look back on where you came from to understand where you are at the present moment,” Santos said. “We do understand that we are a big part of it. A lot of the Division-I wins – those timely wins – and the Atlantic 10 and CAA titles have all helped us along the way and have catapulted us to where we are and the kind of recruits we get now. Sure, I definitely look back at our success, but right now as a coach I am just focusing on the next opportunity for our guys to get better.”
While CAA Football, which assumed control of the conference from the Atlantic 10 after the 2006 season, was still in its infancy at the time Santos was a senior in 2007, he agreed that consistency and depth have remained despite various teams and players having come and gone.
“We feel it’s the top conference in FCS Football,” Santos said. “You have teams coming in like Albany and Stony Brook that are very talented teams. Obviously, the Maines of the world and ourselves and the other northern schools, we have to go down and compete with the schools in the south that can flat out play. They get all those recruits down there. They are very big, fast and talented teams that we have to deal with on a weekly basis; and I think we hold our own.”
Santos isn’t the lone member on the list of young coaches who once played and made headlines in CAA Football. James Madison’s secondary coach, Tony LeZotte, is very familiar with Santos’ playing ability given that he enjoyed a standout career for the Dukes from 2004-07. LeZotte ranks sixth all-time at JMU with 416 career tackles and was the first player in league history to earn all-conference honors four times.
“It’s great,” Santos said of LeZotte and others who came back to coach at their respective CAA Football schools. “It just shows you the type of kids who were in the CAA when it became great. These kids who care about football are passionate about the game and passionate enough that they want to give back as coaches and true students of the game.”
After talking with Santos, it’s clear that he’s happy with how things turned out both as a player and now a coach. He still admits, however, that it took some time to get acclimated to the reversal of the roles.
In his first week of coaching, he learned a hard lesson from McDonnell about the commitment needed.
“I didn’t quite know how much of a grind it was,” Santos added as he laughed. “I got most of my work done and I was ready to get out of there, but Coach McDonnell understood there is always something else to be done – always another film to break down, another play that you can come up with, another scheme, another method of gaining an advantage. Again, Coach McDonnell is a tireless worker and that’s why I think this team has been so successful over the last decade.”
While talking with Santos the Friday before the Villanova game, he also mentioned his unique perspective as a former quarterback now coaching wide receivers.
New Hampshire ended up winning that game, 29-28, on a last-second two-point conversion play. The Wildcats won the game partly behind a receiving corps that had to step up without its top player, R.J. Harris, who was out with an injury.
“In the film room I try to show the guys film and teach them through the eyes of a quarterback,” explained Santos. “I try to point out certain zone coverages where the quarterback might be looking, seeing where the holes might be, looking at linebackers at the second level and which way they’re buzzing and which zones of the field they’re dropping to.
“I’ve been trying to teach the kids through the quarterback’s eyes and I think it’s been working,” he adds. “They have been playing very well so far.”
Santos’ coaching method appeared to work well against Villanova, as receivers Justin Mello and Jared Allison finished with 73 and 56 yards, respectively. Allison’s eight-yard touchdown catch – the first of his career — with 5:03 to play proved critical, as it put UNH ahead, 21-14, before the home ‘Cats eventually pulled out the win.
Santos is clearly onto something with his approach in Durham. And if his playing record provides any indication, with him now on the sidelines we should only see the Wildcats further extend the immense success they have achieved over the last decade, which is in many respects rooted in the play of that wide-eyed quarterback who rose from obscurity all those years ago.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to CAA Assistant Cameron Cox for his assistance with this piece
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