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Tim O’Sullivan: Santos eager to prove himself again – as a coach

DURHAM – Ricky Santos is right back where he started at the University of New Hampshire, and that has its ups and downs.

Santos rewrote the UNH record book when he was the Wildcats quarterback from 2004-07. After playing in the Canadian Football League for four seasons, Santos returned to his alma mater this spring as the receivers coach. It’s his first foray into the coaching world, but it’s not the first time he’s had to work his way up the UNH football ladder.

“I joke with some of the coaches that in my first two or three years here it felt like Coach (Sean McDonnell) hated me, then he liked me my senior year once I finally got it, then he loved me for four years when I was done playing,” Santos said with a smile during yesterday’s annual Media Day at Cowell Stadium. “Now I’m back and I’m low man on the totem pole and he hates me again, so I have to figure it out all over again.”

McDonnell believes his former star can figure it out as a coach. And the head coach doesn’t really hate his new assistant, but he won’t hesitate to use some tough love, either.

“I had to yell at him today. He was trying to tell me what to do in one thing and it was good,” McDonnell said. “But Ricky Santos wants to coach, and as with any young coach that’s been through here … if he puts his nose down and grinds he’s got the ability to be a (heck) of a coach.”

Santos responded well to McDonnell’s yelling during his playing days. He did, after all, finish his college career ranked third on the NCAA all-time passing yardage list (13,212 yards) and third on the all-time touchdown passes list (123). He also holds the UNH school records for the most completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, total touchdowns and total offense in a game, season and career. And, so far at least, Santos hasn’t minded McDonnell barking at him as a new coach.

“He did yell at me today,” Santos admitted. “We were doing some ball drills and my receivers weren’t catching it, and then they weren’t getting up the field as hard as he wanted. I should have had them coached up a little better, so he got on me.”

The Wildcats went 37-14 during Santos’s playing days and made four straight playoff appearances, a postseason run that has stretched to nine straight, the longest active streak in the country. Those are the numbers that carry the most weight with McDonnell, and, in turn, with the current players.

“The kid could play the game and I think our kids respond to the fact this was a major part of our turnaround when he was doing it,” McDonnell said. “He’s still learning, obviously, working with (offensive coordinator) Ryan Carty and (running backs coach Michael Ferzoco) and those guys, but just to talk to a kid about how he buys into what we’ve done, that goes miles for us as a team and for me as a head coach, and he’s working his tail off at it.”

“Coach Santos, he’s like a player’s coach. He’s been here before, he understands Coach (McDonnell), and we feel comfortable just having him around,” said junior receiver R.J. Harris, who led the Wildcats last year with 84 catches for 1,059 yards and nine touchdowns. “He gets on us, but he knows how to get his point across and I think all the receivers, not just me, we’ve taken to that and really appreciate having a coach like that.”

Santos spent three of his four years in the CFL as a backup for the Montreal Alouettes and Coach Marc Trestman, who is the new head coach for the Chicago Bears. Santos didn’t see much playing time north of the border, but he certainly gained some valuable football knowledge during his time there.

“Coach Trestman was a very meticulous leader and he demanded a lot out of his guys, and I learned a lot in his West Coast passing system,” Santos said. “Some of the route concepts that he used are very good and there’s some other stuff that I feel I can bring here.”

Santos was released by the Alouettes last June, then signed with Toronto before getting released again. He spent the next several months at home in Bellingham, Mass., staying in shape and hoping for another chance to play, but also assessing his other options.

He ran into McDonnell at a UNH basketball game during the winter and asked his former mentor what steps he should take to get into the coaching field. As it turned out, McDonnell eventually had a job opening that turned into the first step.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I wanted to keep playing,” Santos said. “But I got really excited thinking about coaching here, a place that I’m comfortable with and a place that I’ve been around. I know a lot of the coaches, I know the athletic director, Marty Scarano, and what he expects of his employees. So it just seemed like a really good fit and it’s worked out well.”

Just how well it works out in the end will be left up to the head coach.

“We’ll see how productive the receivers are,” McDonnell said, “and then we’ll give him a grade at the end of the season.”

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