Sports | Football

The star quarterback on Columbia’s sideline

Columbia has cycled through two quarterbacks this fall, ranking just 96th in the FCS with 169.9 passing yards per game. 

Ricky Santos is the coach tasked with turning around the Lions' quarterback play, but curiously, at 32-years old, he might still be the best option to start under center. 

Santos hasn't played since his days with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts in 2012, but he is still one of the most decorated quarterbacks in FCS History.

Hired in April of this year, he rewrote the record book at the University of New Hampshire. He broke the single-game record for most passing yards by a first-year in 2004, and later set the single-season mark for most touchdowns in 2006. 

That record helped catapult Santos to win the Walter Payton Award in 2006—the FCS’ version of the Heisman Trophy. 

“He’s got to be in the conversation [as the best FCS quarterback ever],” Mike Zhe, former UNH beat reporter for the Portsmouth Herald, said.

But coming out of high school, for all his eventual record-setting numbers, Santos was anything but a highly touted recruit. The signal caller for two consecutive state championship teams lost the interest of major programs after posting a lackluster 40-yard dash time of 5.1 seconds. With one week left before signing day, Santos had only one Division I offer—from the University of New Hampshire. 

“I always looked to that,” Santos said. “I had a chip on my shoulder, and I thought I could have played at a higher level. Maybe the size and the speed wasn’t what I was supposed to be, but I had a chip.”

He didn’t get an opportunity to prove his mettle when he took a redshirt season in 2003. The following year, Santos began the spring season as a fourth-string backup, but after the two in front of him left to transfer and injury, and the starter tore his ACL late in the first half, the coaches had no choice but to thrust him into action against then-FCS powerhouse Delaware.

“They called my name, and I looked around, and my buddy was like, ‘hey, you’re in’, and I was like, ‘stop messing with me,’” Santos recalled. “I didn’t even know where my helmet was.”

Santos took the first play call, but, admittedly, blacked out and had to burn a timeout for his first collegiate play. From there, Santos promptly led the Wildcats to a 24-21 win over the Blue Hens, going 10-for-11 for 146 yards and a touchdown.

According to Zhe, Santos was so unheralded entering the Delaware contest that he wasn’t even included in the media guide. 

But the first-year made his presence felt again in the next game, throwing for five touchdowns to lead the Wildcats’ spread offense attack—headed up by then-offensive coordinator and eventual NFL head coach Chip Kelly—to a victory over FBS team Rutgers. From that moment until Santos’ graduation in 2007, the starting job was essentially his.

Head coach Sean McDonnell and Kelly’s use of the spread offense at New Hampshire eventually revolutionized football, but Santos, as the signal caller, was undoubtedly a central figure in that movement. (In fact, Columbia offensive coordinator Mark Fabish noted that Santos’ experience with the spread offense was instrumental in retooling the Lions’ attack this past spring). 

 Cheryl Wang / Staff Designer

“He was smart enough to know what we were trying to do,” McDonnell said. “If he did his reads and put the ball on people and knew where they were supposed to go, the offense would take care of itself, and his numbers would come to him.”

That approach left Santos in rare company in the FCS record books. His career statistics still eclipse those of current NFL quarterbacks Tony Romo and Carson Wentz. 

With such an illustrious collegiate past, Santos had his sights set on a career in the National Football League upon graduation in 2007. But hampered by a late-career shoulder sprain, Santos’ underwhelmed scouts on his pro day. 

He went undrafted, but was later picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs in May for a tryout, though he was cut in the same month. Still hopeful to earn an eventual spot in the NFL, he drew interest from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

“[My agent] was like, ‘It’s not a bad thing to do that for a year. If you can find a way to start and have success, you can come right back [to the NFL],’” Santos recounted. “I thought it was going to be a good opportunity, but come to find out Anthony Calvillo—who’s their starter, started for them for 18 years—is a legend.”

Calvillo, owner of the records for most career passing yards and touchdowns in all of professional football, held onto his starting spot during Santos’ tenure with the Alouettes. Santos was a third-stringer behind Calvillo, but Marc Trestman—former Alouettes head coach and most recent Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator—noted that Santos still managed to carve out a minor role in Montreal thanks to the unique rules of the CFL.

“Because in the CFL the defensive line is a yard off the ball, once you get to third and one, you’ve got a good chance of making a first down with a quarterback sneak,” Trestman said. “He was the guy we had do that, and he did an excellent job.”

Santos played twice under Trestman, as he was traded away to Winnipeg in 2009, but after a coaching change that left him without a team, the Alouettes re-signed him in 2010. He spent two more years in Montreal before a four-day stay with the Toronto Argonauts. 

By 2012, he left the CFL for good and returned to Bellingham, where he briefly worked as a substitute teacher. Looking for a new career path, Santos first wanted to get into teaching and hopefully become a school administrator and then athletic director. But in the year he worked in that position, the former quarterback didn’t feel adequately challenged.

“I really enjoyed it, but it still wasn’t competitive enough for me,” Santos said. “I still had so much fire left.”

Santos soon found an outlet for that competitive nature on the sideline, traveling to New Hampshire to meet up with McDonnell at a basketball game. Although McDonnell hadn’t seen his quarterback in about a year, he floated the idea of having Santos join his coaching staff as a wide receivers coach when they met. 

One month later, in March 2013, Santos returned to the Wildcats as the wide receivers coach and immediately settled into his new job. But after three seasons under his former head coach, Santos got an opportunity to interview for the quarterbacks coach position, which he had coveted from the outset, at Columbia.

Once the position opened up in Morningside Heights, the coaching staff asked Santos to come down for an interview—that was the only one they needed to conduct.

“We interviewed a couple tight ends coach and another receivers coach, but when he walked in, we all took a breath,” offensive coordinator Mark Fabish said. “He did his thing on the board, communicated. He went to grab a water or use the restroom, and we all looked at each other and were like, ‘This guy is the real deal.’”

Santos joined the staff in March of 2016, and quickly endeared himself to the Light Blue’s quarterbacks, earning their admiration with his experience under Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman. 
 
And that expertise has helped ease junior starting quarterback Anders Hill into the system, despite it being his third one to absorb in three seasons. Beyond just the system, though, Santos has tried to instill in his unit a fierceness, one that comes out when the team holds ‘competitive Thursdays,’ during which players try to best each other in skill drills. Both Hill and first-year quarterback Matt Dame noted that their coach will often show them up on those days. 

“I like to challenge these guys and talk trash a little bit to get their competitive nature firing,” Santos said. “That’s one thing that this program has lacked… that confidence, that bravado.”

The former quarterback has also implemented a drill that paid dividends against Yale in the fourth quarter last Friday night. With under 10 minutes left, Hill completed a four-yard fade to senior wide receiver Cameron Dunn for a touchdown, igniting a 23-point run. That play, it turns out, was the product of a drill Santos created, one that he insists be relentlessly repeated.

Each week, Santos stands on a chair in the corner of the endzone, serving as an elevated target for his quarterbacks so that they can place the ball only where their receivers can catch it come game time. 

Though he’s no longer setting records, Santos can still see his efforts pay off on the field in ways such as those. And that’s what excites him most.

“Those are the things as coaches that you get excited about, when you put an individual drill to practice, and then, all of the sudden, it shows up on Friday night.”

austin.horn@columbiaspectator.com | @CUSpecSports

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