Senior running back John Santiago looks to pace the Fighting Hawks offense in 2018.
Making adjustments on the football field has never been a challenge for John Santiago. Originally recruited as a wide receiver out of Andover, Minnesota, Santiago was immediately moved to running back in his first fall in Grand Forks. That adjustment has paid off for the Fighting Hawks and Santiago, who led the FCS in all-purpose yards last season. However, in his final season, he has had to make another adjustment, one that is relatively familiar.
Offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph has been tinkering with Santiago at wide receiver, mainly in the slot. In spurts (mainly on third downs), he will play the position he originally planned on playing when he came to Grand Forks. “I’m kind of getting a hold of it and learning it as fast as I can,” Santiago said. “Coach Rudolph likes to see me in open space, so they’re wanting to put me in positions to do that. I’m excited for it.”
Rudolph and the rest of the staff are right in loving to see Santiago in open space. His body size and shiftiness has made him one of the most evasive players in FCS. Hence why Santiago is a staple on special teams, returning punts and kickoffs for the Fighting Hawks. It was with this all-encompassing skill set that Santiago amassed a tremendous amount of total yards in 2017.
Not only that, but Santiago garnered All-American and All-Big Sky honors in 2017. He is the first and only running back to be voted All-Big Sky in his freshman, sophomore and junior campaigns. His 1,780 all-purpose yards and individual awards are eye-popping to most, but Santiago says statistics are unimportant in the grand scheme of success.
“I don’t really look at statistics that much. It’s really cool to be honored for special teams just because it is a really important part of football, that people often take for granted,” he said. “I just have to build off of that. Accolades are cool and all, but I need build off of that. This is a new team, I’m a new John, we just need to keep changing, adapting and getting better.”
While Santiago is the player who gets the most notoriety, thanks to his numbers, he is surrounded by other offensive threats. Having played alongside Brady Oliveira and others for three seasons has made Santiago the player he is now. “It’s awesome playing with these guys. We have people who can really play football and know football,” he said. “That makes me better because I can learn from them and we can learn from each other. The good thing about our team is that we love to learn, no one is hard-headed or thinks they are the best player. We all learn from each other and that’s a big plus.”
However, one question that continued to swirl around North Dakota football was their quarterback situation. With three viable options available, it seemed that the scenario could disrupt team chemistry or the team finding a groove offensively. That is the outsider’s opinion, Santiago believes it has only helped the Fighting Hawks.
“I don’t really think there are negatives because the positives totally outweigh them,” he said. “They all compete in their own way and they have their own strengths and weaknesses. They learn from one another and build off of one another. We really need that because we need to compete every day.”
Thanks to his stellar 2017 season and his entire Fighting Hawks career in general, Santiago gained national recognition. He was named Second Team All-Purpose All-American heading into the upcoming season. Santiago, who thinks accolades are nice, disregards any preseason attention put on him or the team. “The preseason doesn’t really matter. I mean you can praise the things you did last season for a day and show your family, but you can’t define yourself that way the next year,” he said. “One thing I do personally is I’ll retweet that preseason stuff just so my family can see it and then I’ll turn off Twitter, Instagram and all that. I go black for fall camp. It’s cool stuff, but you really can’t post that stuff because then you’re limiting yourself and setting yourself up for failure.”
The senior takes that mindset into every game, regardless of the opponent. In his time in Grand Forks, Santiago has played notable FBS opponents like Utah and Wyoming. This season, the Fighting Hawks took on Washington on September 8. Santiago treated that game the same way he would any other. “It’s always awesome being the underdog, you have that energy to go into that game,” he said. “But we treat it like any other game, whether we’re on national TV or not, we just want to play the same way.”
2017 was a season that saw individual success for Santiago, but it did not transition to team success. For him and the Fighting Hawks to succeed, they must put the struggles of last year aside and learn from the mistakes made.
“One thing about us moving forward is not thinking about the things we did last year. Not to have that bad attitude. We just want to keep getting better,” he said. “There’s been a lot of changes in our program, we’ve changed how we train in the weight room and how practice goes. We just want to change and I think the mood in Grand Forks has changed on our team especially. The guys want to come and play football every day, they want to learn every day. We compete on the field every day and the energy is just different and it’s good to see us building and changing, I think.”
To say 2018 will be an uphill climb would be an understatement. It is difficult for any team to overcome the adversity behind a losing season and come back stronger the following year. However, with John Santiago as their anchor, North Dakota is poised for a bounce-back season in 2018. In his final campaign with the program, it is more about team accolades than individual ones for Santiago. He is ready to run with his Fighting Hawks teammates alongside him.
Santiago’s All-Purpose Breakdown In 2017
Rushing Yards: 717
Receiving Yards: 93
Special Teams Yards: 970
Total: 1,780 (FCS Leader)
Santiago’s UND Career So Far
Rushing Yards: 3,159
Receiving Yards: 261
Special Teams Yards: 2,119
Total All-Purpose Yards: 5,539
Total Touchdowns: 31