James Durrant, UteZone

Santiago embraces life as a Ute

Walk-on receiver Andrew Santiago has reveled in his experience as a Ute

Andrew Santiago may not be the most familiar name on the Utah football roster, but his passion and drive for his team can’t be beat. He is the true definition of a Utah Man through and through.

“It’s been a great ride,” the senior wide receiver said. “I’ve loved it, I’ve loved being here. Great coaches, great environment, great university. It’s just been a great experience. It’s kind of been one thing after another trying to play a little bit more but I’ve loved it and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Santiago hails from Plano, Texas and despite both of his parents graduating from BYU, he says his drive was always to play for the Utes. “I remember when I was leaving on my mission [Utah was] still in the Mountain West and I told my dad I wanted to come play for Utah,” he said “He sent me an email a couple of weeks later and said that they had moved to the Pac-12. I was like ‘Oh boy, that’s a lot harder.’”

Even with the added challenge of Utah moving to the Pac-12, Santiago was not deterred. When he arrived home in January of 2012 from his mission he was prepared to try-out for the team and give it everything he had. “There was a walk-on try-out and I showed up and did that. They called me a week later and brought me on the team and it’s been a journey ever since,” he said of the experience. “I’ve done scout team almost every year; I get my chances here and there. Had a few injuries that kind of set me back, but I’ve always kind of bounced back and kept grinding. I’m still here and excited to see the end, but it’s a little bittersweet.”

One of the best parts of playing with the Utes for Santiago has been watching the team transform into a Pac-12 team and playing some of the most storied programs in the country. “It’s been great playing teams like Oregon, UCLA, USC- just these iconic teams and seeing this team evolve since we entered the Pac-12 to now has just been so cool,” he said. “Seeing guys that most people would consider Mountain West talent to step up and play at the Pac-12 level is amazing. Guys really stepped up to the challenge. Coaches really stepped up to the challenge and it’s been really cool.”

And while being a part of a Pac-12 team comes with some glitz and glamour it also comes with it’s own unique set of challenges. Injuries are a very real thing and Santiago says he doesn’t recall being on a team with so much depth to where guys are ready to play if needed. “This is my fifth year and I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that is just next man up,” he said. “Everybody is ready, everybody just steps up and the next man is just prepared. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team that has battled adversity the way we have. Somebody goes down, somebody else goes in and shows up and plays great. It’s been pretty awesome.”

Santiago also says there is an immense gap between what you learn as a high school football player and what you learn as a college football player that presents challenges most are not aware of. “It’s a big transition. I remember in high school all we had was four or five different combinations and then coming here you have a playbook that is like three inches thick,” he explained. “It’s a lot of concentration and a lot of effort and time watching film, getting into your playbook and you have to compete against other guys. In high school it’s a totally different thing. You are used to kind of being the guy and coming into college you have a million guys you have to try and beat out.”

Even with limited playing time, Santiago marvels at how much he has learned since arriving on campus five years ago and how much slower the game is for him now. “I haven’t gotten a ton of playing time but when I do get in here and there it seems slower,” he said. “At first I remember being a freshman and getting thrown in the mix and everything was coming at me a thousand miles an hour. I could barely figure out one position let alone four and now it kind of comes slower. It’s easier and it makes a lot more sense.”

Santiago says adding receivers coach Guy Holliday to the staff is a big reason for not only his improved play and knowledge of the game, but the entire wide receiver corps' improved performance in 2016. “I think adding Coach Holliday was a great find, great coach to hire and he’s super motivating,” he said. “He kind of lit a fire under us. He calls us out every day and says ‘Everybody looks at us as the bottom of the team’ and I think he’s done a great job flip-flopping that. We all compete against one another but we also push one another to be great and I think that has been the key is Coach Holliday.”

Although the receiver group is very competitive, they also may be one of the closer-knit position groups on the team and it’s something Santiago says has really grown over the years. “Every guy, we just care about each other, we love each other, but I think it’s that competitive side too that kind of brings it out of us,” he said. “At the end of the day we come out to practice and give each other a hard time but when we walk off the field we are buddies and hang out. It’s been fun. You get to know each other, everybody has a different nickname, or a funny story we all give each other a hard time about. I love this group, I love these guys.”

That love for his teammates was cemented for Santiago the first day he reported to the Utes for fall camp and has become his fondest memory of his time at Utah. “I got called into fall camp a week late and they threw me in there in our first scrimmage and first play out Brandon Cox threw me a touchdown pass for 60 yards,” Santiago said. “I remember getting in the end zone and looking back to make sure there wasn’t a flag or anything like that. KScott and a bunch of other guys were jumping on top of me and the coaches were telling everybody to get off the field. A close second would be getting in and playing against BYU this year on kick-off return. That was definitely a huge highlight.”

Whatever comes next for Santiago, he knows he is well prepared to deal with it after his time at Utah where he says he has learned how to deal with the little bumps in the road that come with life. “Adversity is always going to come,” he said. “It’s helping to prepare you and how willing are you to fight it? I think that is the best advice I’ve had is to take things slow, know adversity is going to come and be prepared for it.”

That willingness to fight, the ability to be prepared for whatever is what Santiago hopes his lasting impression will be on the team and for the fans. “I worked my butt off,” he said. “I didn’t always get the most opportunities but I was the guy who never quit, I was the guy that always stuck around and pushed everybody to be better.”

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