Santos finds place covering kicks

AUSTIN, Texas -- Just talking about it is enough to get Dalton Santos sweating and grinning.

The excitable Texas linebacker is asked to take reporters through a typical kickoff, from start to finish. Santos likes that question. His eyes light up and his voice rises.

"Well, here's how it first starts off ... "

Here, indeed, is the story of how a true freshman establishes his reputation. This is how the Dalton Santos story first starts off. We're only on chapter one, and already his teammates, coaches and fans are hooked. You see, you just don't find too many guys like Santos. It's one thing to be a 6-foot-3, 260-pound linebacker who runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. It's another to combine that with the mentality of a headhunter.

"He's crazy," linebacker Kendall Thompson said. "He knocks heads and don't care."

Is he crazy? Santos says he doesn't think so. Then he pauses. He supposes that's a possibility.

"A bunch of guys call me crazy," he said. "They call me the 'Crazy White Boy.' That's the name I've got right now. I like it. I think it's pretty cool."

Ole Miss was familiar with his exploits, knew about all his solo tackles as a member of Texas' dynamic kickoff coverage unit. The Rebels paid him the ultimate respect a guy like Santos can earn: They double-teamed him with blockers on Saturday.

Word has spread fast about the maniac from Van, Texas, who unwittingly made himself the face of Texas' "Wild Bunch" kickoff squad.

"He's a wild man, really," linebacker Tevin Jackson said. "He takes the 'Wild Bunch' to heart."

Few things fire up the team on Sundays, Texas coach Mack Brown said, like reviewing film of the new kid rumbling through blockers and steamrolling a returner.

"They love watching Santos," Brown said. "He just smashes 'em, just knocks 'em out of the way. They all love him."

The feeling is certainly mutual. Santos would be playing at Tennessee today, where he'd originally committed, had he not fallen in love with Texas late in his recruiting process. What sold him? The friendships he'd immediately struck up with UT recruits Malcom Brown, Johnathan Gray and Peter Jinkens at the Under Armour All-America Game in Florida in January.

"We clicked. It was something I didn't feel at other places," Santos said. "I knew at that point if it came knocking here, this is where I wanted to be, with them dudes. I wanted to know that I could step on that field and shed blood, sweat and tears with them."

When those future Longhorns came back home, they pleaded with Mack Brown: Go get Dalton Santos. He's a leader, they told Brown, and he's tough.

And when the touted newcomer first set foot on campus this summer, he had a goal. Santos was out to take the starting middle linebacker job his. Didn't matter who stood in his way.

He learned to be patient. Steve Edmond is firmly entrenched in his starting spot, and he and Santos have become best friends. The apprentice knows his time on defense will come sooner or later. He just wants to contribute.

He found a chance to on the "Wild Bunch," a rag-tag group of Texas' most athletic defenders. No member of that unit holds a starting job on the Longhorns defense.

Like Santos, they're all just trying to make a name for themselves. They find camaraderie in that pursuit.

"We all have to start somewhere," Jackson said. "We're a bunch of young players, so that's where we've got to start. It starts with special teams and you build your house from there."

They're out to stop returns from reaching the 20-yard line. Freshman Nick Rose has a preternatural knack for kickoffs with maximum hangtime and distance. If a returner doesn't want his free 25 yards, he's asking for trouble.

The unit has been bested once -- Ole Miss' Jaylen Walton took a kickoff back 100 yards this weekend -- but has made an unmistakeable difference in field position. Excluding that touchdown, Texas opponents are, on average, starting drives at the 17-yard line. They've been stopped short of their 20-yard line a total of 11 times on 18 returns.

On Santos' first of three kickoff stops against New Mexico, he swears Lobos returner Lamaar Thomas looked him dead in the eyes and muttered, "Oh, no" seconds before Santos knocked him out of bounds at the 16. These are the moments he lives for these days.

"We set the tone," Santos said. "When we go down there and knock somebody up, Kenny Vaccaro is going to go crazy. [Alex Okafor] is going to go crazy. Those guys are going to feed off that. The fans go crazy. When the fans go crazy, we feed off of it. That alone is real neat. We take tremendous pride in it."

Back to the story Santos was starting to tell. You know, the one about the incomparable glory of covering a kickoff.

Rose and his 10 defenders line up. Santos shouts at his kicker, usually something to the effect of, "OK, Rose, it's time!"

The kick floats into the night air. Here comes the "Wild Bunch."

"At that point it's like a switch hits," Santos said. "You don't even think. You just run. This guy gets in my way, we're just going right through him.

"Whatever you've got to do to get to the ball, you've got to do it. You just be relentless. Don't let one man block you. Take three or four on."

It's simple, he says. You go make a play. You go forge that reputation.

Three games in, Santos has found his. Just ask his fellow special-teamers.

What would Thompson if do if Santos was barreling his way unblocked? Same thing anyone else would do. Same thing Texas' Big 12 foes are about to do.

"Whew," he said. "Uh ... get ready."