Tom Santi Growing in Stature

Last season's big catch at tight end was New Jersey's Greg Olsen, a propsect Tennessee pursued and Notre Dame procured.

This year the Vols are on the trail of a talented tight end closer to home who is not nearly as well known as Olsen, but may be every bit as talented.

No, Nashville MBA's Tom Santi won't appear on any preseason all-American lists, however he is on the most wanted list of several schools that regard potential as essential.

A year ago Santi was a little known rangy wide receiver with unimpressive numbers. A part time starter as a sophomore, he caught only five passes in the Big Red's run oriented offense. At 6-4, 205, he was considered too small to play tight end and too slow to be a wideout.

However a funny thing happened on the way to the next level. MBA underwent a coaching change that brought former Alabama and NFL quarterback Jeff Rutledge to the helm. Rutledge opened up the passing game and Santi was the recepient of good fortune.

Not only did he develop into an accomplished receiver who hauled in 46 passes for 650 yards and nine touchdowns, he also was inspired by the new strength coach and made progress in the weight room. In addition to passes, Santi caught football fever and began to envision a gridiron future.

"Baseball was my first love and football was something I just kind of did because it was fun and I wanted to be involved in stuff," Santi said. "It started my sophomore year when I really started to enjoy it. Then this past year I've fallen in love with it. It was probably coach Rutledge to be honest. He's such a great motivator and a great man. That really motivates guys to succeed. If you're having a good time doing something, you can't help but to have success."

Success came slow at first as the Big Red got off to a 4-4 start, but MBA caught fire to win five straight down the stretch, including the private school state championship with a 27-11 victory over Brentwood Academy.

Today Santi is 6-5, 225 and growing. He's also getting stronger and faster. In fact, Santi recently recorded a blazing 4.51 time in the 40 and he hoists 295 in the clean and press while benching 305 and squatting 450.

That compares very well to Olsen who was last year's No. 1 rated tight end. At 6-6, 240, Olsen ran a 4.65 and caught 27 passes for 560 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior at Wayne Hills High School.

"I've always been sort of fast but over the last year the coaches have really worked on team speed overall," he explained. "Our weight coach said as I've gotten stronger I've gotten faster because of more muscle and flexibility and everything."

Santi is working on improving his pass catching skills this summer during regular workouts with MBA's quarterback. He's also continuing his strength training routine but he's limited his camp appearances to the Nike combine at Auburn.

"I feel like I'm increasing my speed and that's a big part of it," Santi said. "I've been throwing a lot this summer with my quarterback. I want to have the ability, if the ball is anywhere near me, to catch it.

"My new weight coach is helping me get stronger and teaching me the right way to do stuff."

In the state title game against Brentwood Academy, Santi caught five passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Yet, it might surprise you to discover that he regards his playoff game against Chattanooga Baylor as his best despite the fact he didn't catch any passes.

"I remember our tailback Blake Goodman broke three tackles to get past the line of scrimmage," he said when asked to describe his most memorable play from last season. "It was a trap and I'd blocked my man and he was pretty much out of the play. I saw our tailback had broken into the second level and I took off and blocked a defensive back at the 23, and finally pancaked him at about the 1 yard-line. Our tailback scored and that was probably a 60-yard run. I didn't catch a single pass that night, but I think it was probably my best game of the year."

Santi is as smart as he is unselfish. You talk about qualified: He scored a 1350 on his SAT and maintains a 3.9 GPA at MBA. He's interested in business management but believes a good education is incumbent upon an individual more than it is an institution.

"I feel I will be all right academically wherever I go," he said. "I can make a good education. A lot of colleges can offer a good education. The main part for me is a team that's going to win. At the same time I want to get a good education, but I feel like that's easier to do than to find a good football team."

Tennessee is one team in search of a good tight end and the Vols offered Santi a scholarship three weeks ago when he made an unofficial visit to campus. He was first offered by Georgia Tech where he later enjoyed a good unofficial visit along with his family. He has also been offered by Vanderbilt, Colorado, Iowa and Louisville. That list is sure to grow as word of Santi's scintillating skills circulate. He plans to take most of his visits before making a decision and doesn't currently have a favorite.

"I'd like to wait a while," he said of his commitment. "I want to take most of if not all my officials. I feel like you can only learn and know so much about a place before you meet the people face to face, see the campus and feel what the atmosphere is like."

Coaches like Santi's versatility and ability to play the H-back or tight end. He can also line up in the slot or split out wide to test single coverage.

With a strong senior season, Santi is sure to scale the national list of prospects at his position. After all, he's already shown what a difference a year can make.

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