North Dakota running back John Santiago has and will face a lot of questions leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft.
Earlier this week, he answered one of the easier ones.
“That’s easy to remember,” Santiago said with a laugh when asked how many Division I scholarship offers he had. “One.”
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Santiago's path to now training for a professional football career isn't your typical story of a highly-recruited player who developed into an elite talent at his position and is now an NFL prospect.
Undersized at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds out of St. Francis High School (Minnesota), Santiago arrived at UND in the summer of 2015 as a wide receiver. Injuries to the running back room in fall camp resulted in Santiago taking reps at WR and RB as a true freshman. In his collegiate debut, against FBS Wyoming no less, Santiago rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
He didn't leave the lineup since, racking up awards every season such as Co-Big Sky Freshman of the Year and multiple FCS All-American honors as a running back and all-purpose player. Santiago's UND career featured 3,722 rushing yards and 29 TDs, 325 receiving yards and one TD, 2,186 kick return yards and a TD and 334 punt return yards and one TD.
His ability to run the football, catch the football and return punts and kicks makes a career at the professional level within reach.
“Everyday I think about how blessed I am to have this opportunity," Santiago told HERO Sports. "It’s crazy just to think about me coming from St. Francis, which is a small town in the North Metro area of Minneapolis … To make an impact on the community there and use this as a platform as far as it doesn’t matter how big you are or where you start. You just keep your head down and work and you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Santiago is now about 190 pounds. While still considered undersized by the NFL's standards, he's out to prove his versatility outweighs numbers on a roster sheet.
"This part of the process, you have to show you can do everything," Santiago said. "A running back nowadays isn’t someone who just runs downhill … Size is a red flag when people aren’t the same size as most people in the NFL or don’t amount up to their stature. What I have to say about that is you can’t measure heart. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s such a true aspect. You see people like Julian Edelman and Tarik Cohen. Those guys are undersized but they are making huge impacts in the NFL.”
Santiago has already made a strong case. At the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 19, he led the American Team with five receptions for 39 yards and finished second with 36 yards rushing off of just three carries. Baylor quarterback Jalan McClendon had six rushes for 38 yards.
“Showing up there and seeing guys from big schools, it is intimidating at first and you feel out of place and no one knows your helmet," Santiago said. "But once on the field, we all play the same game and we all are there for a reason. I got invited for a reason and kept believing that. I think it turned out pretty well.”
Santiago had plenty of positive influences around him during the week of the bowl game. His head coach there was Tony Dungy. Former Green Bay Packer Brandon Jackson coached the running backs, Plaxico Burress and Andre Johnson were the wide receivers coaches and Ed Reed was the defensive coordinator.
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Outside of that week in Pasadena, California, Santiago has been training in Tampa at ASPI, where notable former NFL players like Randy Moss stop in once a week to work with prospects.
The next step for Santiago is his Pro Day on March 28 in Fargo, N.D. That will play a large part in whether he slips into the high rounds of the NFL Draft or picks up an undrafted free agent rookie deal.
“I want to show that I’m more than just a running back," Santiago said. "I'm someone who can impact your team and organization in a lot of different ways. I want to show that I can be the most versatile guy on your team. And I want to show that I can just play the game of football overall and that I’m tough, I have the speed and I can stick with the big guns."
“I’m considered undersized, but I have to prove I can do everything that a person who is bigger than me can do," he continued. "It's something I’ve been dealing with my whole life and it’s adversity that I love to overcome.”