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Dalton Santos expects nothing but best

VAN, Texas -- There's a swagger about Dalton Santos that many football junkies -- or even those who are slightly competitive -- may find intoxicating.

The nation's No. 1 inside linebacker, Santos has built a reputation of practicing what he preaches. If he says he's expecting to dominate on the football field, chances are, his words will become reality. If he says he's going to cover the best receivers on inside routes -- even at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds -- his actions usually make the biggest critic take a pause.

Santos isn't your average linebacker. He's got the speed of a running back, the power of an offensive lineman and the stamina and endurance of an Ironman triathlete. He also has the heart of a champion and a mindset to never be considered anything less than the best.

The intangibles are what make Santos so attractive to recruiters, and the Van, Texas, superstar will head to Tennessee in the fall. Before that, Santos will get an opportunity to show the rest of the country what the small, east Texas community already knows, as Santos will participate in the annual Under Armour All-American Game Jan. 5 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Santos was beaming Thursday at his UA jersey presentation, a part of the 80-stop American Family Insurance presents the Under Armour All-America Game selection tour. In front of family, teammates and a rowdy high school audience, Santos wore his jersey proud and reminded everyone of what to expect in January.

"I'm going to be crazy, I'm going to holler, and you're going to know I'm there on the field," Santos said. "I'm going to do what I have to do to showcase myself and my team and to get to places and the things I want and they want.

"Basically, I'm going to do me."

The pride of Van

With a population of roughly 2,700, Van is located 45 minutes east of Dallas. It advertises itself as "The little town with a big heart." Santos can be advertised as the big man with a bigger heart.

Santos is the heart and soul of a Van team that is 8-1 and preparing for the Texas Class 3A playoffs next week. Ranked No. 93 in the latest ESPNU 150, Santos brings a level of intensity and passion to the football field that makes him popular among his peers. He also brings power that makes him a major threat to opposing players.

"He's blessed physically, but he's also worked extremely hard to put himself in the position he has," Van coach Jared Moffatt said. "The kid's 6-foot-3 and 255, 260 pounds, and he can run a 4.6 in the 40. That's not normal."

Santos will become the second player from Van to participate in the UA Game. Former Oklahoma running back Jermie Calhoun, who graduated from Van in 2008, played in the all-star game in January of the same year.

Being No. 2 -- in this case -- is something Santos carries with pride and respect, particularly with the love he has for Van and the people in it.

"It means a great deal to know what I've done has impacted a lot of people's lives here," Santos said. "That's an awesome feeling for me. You walk around and everybody knows you and says hi. They're happy, and they want to see me be successful. I couldn't be more happy, because Van is a great place."

World-class training

For the last three years, Santos has trained to be the best. Credit his trips to nearby Tyler, Texas, for the stellar improvements.

He works out with Bobby Stroupe at APEC (Accelerate Performance Enhancement Center), a cutting-edge, no-nonsense training facility. APEC has trained multiple well-known athletes, including Chicago Bears Pro Bowl receiver Johnny Knox and Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who won a Super Bowl title backing up Aaron Rodgers in February.

"Since I've been going there, I went from running a 5.2 [40-yard dash] my freshman year to a 4.6," Santos said. "I used to only bench press 225 pounds six times. Now, I can do it 22. My vertical went from 28 [inches] to 33.

"What [Stroupe] has done for me with the training and the nutritional side and work ethic has changed me as an athlete. It's all about the grind. If you go out and give all your effort, there's no way you won't get better. It's going to hurt, but you've got to do it if you want to be the best."

It's because of the training that Santos -- who is the size of a small college offensive lineman -- is a reliable memory of Van's three track and field relay teams. It's strange to some seeing a 255-pounder running with the more streamlined sprinters, but it's even odder to opponents when his team comes in first place because of his efforts.

"He ran on all three relays at the district track meet, and they won the district in all three," Moffatt said. "When you watch a kid that big run the quarter mile in 52 [seconds] flat, it's impressive."

Rock solid as a Vol

Santos originally committed to Oklahoma State in September 2010 but decommitted late May of this year to explore other options -- options that included 2012 SEC schools Alabama, Texas A&M and his current school, Tennessee.

He committed to Tennessee in August and, on Thursday, silenced rumors about him looking at other possibilities. Texas A&M's move to the SEC next fall made some believe Santos would try to play a little closer to home in the same conference.

"I'm strong with it. I love it up there," Santos said. "It's different from here, somewhere I can step out and grow as a person and a player. I love challenges, and this will be something different in my life. I'm solid there."

Santos is hoping to be a part of a recruiting class that can bring Tennessee back to its glory days. The Volunteers currently are 3-5 on the season, but the 2012 class has 18 commitments, including seven four-star players.

"He's going to be a great leader when he gets there," Moffatt said. "The thing some people around the country don't know about Dalton is that he's a tremendous worker. He's so motivated in being the best he can be, and anytime you have someone like that on a football team, it's a tremendous asset."

Santos added: "When I get there, they should expect a lot of what I consider to be the highest standard. As a person and a player, I feel like I can be one of the best linebackers around. I work to be the best. That's all I've ever done, and I'm not going to settle for anything less."

Damon Sayles covers recruiting in the Midlands for ESPN Recruiting. He can be reached at dsaylesespn@gmail.com.