GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) Much like his running style, John Santiago's rise toward the top of the rushing charts in the Football Championship Subdivision has seen its share of jackrabbit starts and stops.
The diminutive freshman from a small town in Minnesota went unnoticed by college recruiters until North Dakota offered him a scholarship. The coaches tried to switch him to wide receiver in fall camp. Then the first touchdown of his collegiate career was called back on a holding penalty after he sprinted in from 72 yards.
The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Santiago has since shown he can play against the big boys.
''I think a lot of people thought John was too small to play Division I football,'' said Chris Lindquist, Santiago's football coach at St. Francis High School, located on the northern fringes of the Twin Cities. ''The competitive streak in that young man is pretty strong. He kind of likes to defy the odds.''
Santiago has rushed for 1,162 yards in eight games and his average of 129.1 yards per game ranks him fifth in FCS. He is the only freshman in the top 30. Last week he ran for a season-high 230 yards and three touchdowns in an upset win over Montana State, the preseason favorite of coaches in the Big Sky Conference.
''It is kind of overwhelming,'' the soft-spoken Santiago said about his high ranking. ''There's nothing really special about me. I'm just a small-town kid who made it to a nice college and I'm working hard.''
Santiago, a weightlifting fanatic who pound-for-pound is one of the strongest players on the team, has used a special combination of lower-body speed and upper-body strength to keep tacklers at bay. He's clearly one of the fastest players in the league, yet his actual speed numbers are a bit of a mystery. Coach Bubba Schweigert said they don't time players in the 40-yard dash.
Santiago has another weapon that has created a buzz in the Big Sky. His stiff arm has felled many defenders. Lindquist said Santiago has worked hard on perfecting the move, which in high school was often a case of Santiago slapping defenders to the ground.
''He almost forces you into a facemask because you can't grab anything else,'' Lindquist said. ''I think being a little scat back, it's a means to survival. You don't want to take a pounding when you're that small comparatively speaking.
''It's quite the paradox to have a kid that is so humble and so caring and so genuine off the field ... who once he gets on the field almost wants to get in a street fight with you,'' he added.
While Santiago stayed under the Division I radar in high school, UND coaches latched onto him when he attended one of their summer camps. He was placed at wide receiver on the first day of fall practice, but was shifted to the backfield after a handful of injuries.
''I don't think we guessed he would be this productive this early, but we thought he would be a very good player,'' Schweigert said. ''The one thing we really love about John, too, is that he practices very hard. He's a real humble guy. For this early success, he really keeps it in perspective and knows he can get a lot better.''
Santiago has already broken the UND record for rushing yards by a freshman. He's on pace to have the fifth-best rushing season in school history. Even that march has seen starts and stops. After opening the season with 148 yards rushing in a win over Wyoming, Santiago was held to 24 yards by Drake and 7 yards by North Dakota State.
''Of course I felt pretty good after that first game,'' Santiago said. ''I had a little bit of a setback the next two games, but it was important for me to find where I fit in with college football. You can always keep getting better. It doesn't matter where you are on the charts.''
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