Sept. 3, 2016

In the biggest play of Ryan’s Santoro’s UVA career, his role was to be a decoy.

Late in last year’s home opener against Notre Dame, UVA trailed 26-21 and the Cavaliers faced third-and-15 at the Irish 35-yard line.

In the huddle quarterback Matt Johns made the play call “laser dagger,” looked at Santoro and said, “If they are in Cover 2, I’m coming to you.'”

Cover 2 is a defensive formation that features two deep safeties and leaves more defenders close to the line of scrimmage to help with short passes and timing routes.

“I line up wide and basically I’m clearing out for Smoke (UVA running back Taquan Mizzell),” Santoro said. “He was going to run to the sticks and they were going to throw it to him.”

UVA had run “laser dagger” earlier in the game and, as Johns predicted in the huddle, the Irish were in Cover 2. He waited for Santoro to find an opening in the defense and lofted him the ball. Santoro made the catch, the first of his career, broke a tackle and rambled to the 1-yard line.

One play later UVA took a 27-26 lead and it looked like the upset was in the making.

But instead of having a SportsCenter highlight, Santoro’s play turned into a footnote when the Irish rallied for a late score in the final seconds.

Ironically, the play almost didn’t happen. On the previous down, UVA was penalized for an illegal receiver down field. Notre Dame elected to impose the penalty, making it third-and-15, but could have declined and UVA would have faced fourth-and-10.

“No way we call that play on fourth-and-10,” Santoro said.

Unexpected twists and turns have been a big part of Santoro’s journey to the UVA football program. In fact, Santoro never played organized football until his senior year in high school. No pee-wee, no Pop Warner, just occasional pickup games in the back yard.

Santoro grew up a swimmer.

When he was five, he took up the sport at his summer pool and, thanks to the urging of some friends, started to swim competitively in the seventh grade.

For the next six years, his alarm clock would wake him six days a week at 4:05 a.m. to go to practice. He estimates he was in the training pool eight times a week during that stretch.

Distance was his game.

“I swam the 200 breast, 500 free and 200 free,” Santoro said. “Swimming is a great sport in that you are trying to beat your time. In the summer you swim as a team but you are always racing yourself and racing the clock. You get immediate feedback. You touch the wall, you see the time, you know exactly what you’ve done.”

Santoro saw swimming as a possible path to being a competitive athlete in college, but realized his best times plateaued during his sophomore season. He drew some interest from programs at the NCAA Division III level, but after a few school visits, he knew that was not the fit he was looking for in a college.

“I wanted to be at a bigger place,” he said. “Academically I had the opportunity to go to some larger and better schools. I was looking at North Carolina and Northwestern and UVA.”

Because of a shortage of wide receivers returning to his high school squad, Santoro was recruited by his long-time friend and team quarterback Tuck Masker to give the sport a shot during his senior year.

“It was kind of a spur of the moment thing,” Santoro said. “I always loved the game and loved watching the NFL. We had a backyard league every Friday and would have 40 or 50 guys come out, pick teams and play. I loved playing so I thought I would give it a shot.”

Santoro made the commitment, worked out with the team and found himself starting his first game. He scored a touchdown on his first reception and continued to progress, finishing his final game with 11 catches.

Santoro cold-called the UVA football office about tryouts before his first year in the fall of 2012, but he sprained his ankle playing basketball the day before classes started. He showed up in the spring for a tryout that he admits was “bad” and was told he could try again the next fall.

It would have been easy to give up on the dream, but Santoro kept conditioning and gave it another shot in the fall of his second year. When he left that tryout he felt his effort was even worse than the previous spring and his athletic career was over. He was shocked to get a call from the football office saying they wanted him to join the team.

“I was standing in front of Newcomb Hall and literally ran to the football office to get there to fill out the paperwork before everyone left for the night,” Santoro said.

He joined the team four games into the 2013 season and was promptly voted the scout team player of the week after his first week of practices.

“I remember people saying, “Who the hell is Ryan Santoro?'” he said. “I don’t think I had a name on my locker for eight months. It was a very fairy tale type of thing. And, it was awesome.”

Santoro played in two games in 2014 and in eight contests last year. Following the coaching change last December, Santoro wondered if he would have a role on the team.

The question was answered in February when new coach Bronco Mendenhall, in his first meeting with Santoro, told him he was going to receive a scholarship because of the reports he had received about his commitment to the program.

Santoro admits he went through last spring’s practices not completely sure he would return for the fall, or just start a business career after having completed his degree in commerce.

The changes taking place under Mendenhall made that choice easy.

“I realized I had to stay and do this,” Santoro said. “He (Mendehnall) is a captivating person. This is a captivating movement we are doing here and I felt I had to be a part of this.”

Santoro is enjoying his inside perspective of watching Mendenhall make over the program.

“I thought that was more valuable than going out and starting my career,” Santoro said. “The career can wait. I know this is it. There won’t be any more organized sports for me. I think this is a special opportunity for us and I want to be on the team that turned it around here.”