DURHAM — Ricky Santos has been there. He’s done that.
We’re not talking the head coaching part.
Santos makes his debut on the sidelines as interim head coach of the University of New Hampshire football team when the Wildcats take on Holy Cross in their season-opening game Saturday at 1 p.m. on Fitton Field in Worcester, Mass.
That part of the equation is new.
The familiar spot to Santos is the role he is asking Bret Edwards to play in the opener.
A redshirt freshman out of Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Mass., Edwards has been tabbed as UNH’s starting quarterback after winning a tight battle with freshman Max Brosmer. Santos said Brosmer may get some playing time Saturday as well.
Fifteen years ago, Santos made his first start at quarterback as a redshirt freshman in the second game of the season and led the Wildcats to a stunning upset win over Rutgers, a Football Bowl Subdivision team.
After Holy Cross, UNH plays its FBS game at Florida International in Miami on Saturday, Sept. 14 and then faces Rhode Island in its home opener and first Colonial Athletic Association game on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium.
Edwards, backed up by what projects to be a productive offensive line and running game and a tough defense, gets his chance Saturday and will be the first redshirt freshman quarterback to start a game for UNH since Aug. 30, 2012. Sean Goldrich made that debut, also against Holy Cross, and guided the Wildcats to a 38-17 win.
Edwards has been coming on strong.
“I’m very encouraged by what he’s done in the last month for us,” Santos said.
Santos was named interim head coach on Aug. 26 when it was announced that Sean McDonnell was taking a leave of absence to deal with health issues.
He had rejoined the UNH staff as associate head coach and quarterbacks coach last winter after three years as an assistant coach at Columbia University.
Santos didn’t get a chance to watch Edwards, who was sidelined much of the time by injury, a lot during spring football. Since then, Santos has liked what he’s seen of him, both as a leader and in his ability to escape trouble and avoid turnovers.
The coach’s advice to the young quarterback as he takes aim at this first start?
“I think the big thing is for him, because he can really extend the plays, don’t feel like he has to win the game on every single snap,” Santos said. “I think the big plays are going to come to him. Stay within the confines of the offense. In your first start, do a great job of protecting the football and then allow the plays to come to you.”
Santos also wants his quarterbacks to keep an even keel.
“Another thing is, regardless of if we go up 14-0 or down 14-0, your demeanor has to stay the same,” he said. “I think a consistent message and consistent attitude from the quarterback position brings calm and a sense of ease over the entire team. That’s what I always preach to those guys. No matter what happens, it doesn’t matter. Get better. It’s a next snap mentality. . . . Constantly staying in the moment. Letting go of whatever happened, that next snap and moving forward are some of the things I’ve been harping on them all week.”
Senior safety and captain Pop Lacey has watched Edwards, 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds, improve and grow over the last year and is expecting big things from him.
“The kid is deceivingly fast,” Lacey said. “It doesn’t look like he’s running fast, but he is moving. . . . Bret’s a gamer. He doesn’t say too much, but when game-time comes he makes things happen.”
Lacey, Edwards and the Wildcats are anxious to bounce back from a tough season, beginning with a better start to the year.
UNH lost its opener at Maine last year, dropped its first four contests and didn’t win its first game until October, when it stopped Holy Cross, 28-0, at home.
More than that victory, the Wildcats are thinking about what happened when they played at Holy Cross the year before and suffered a 51-26 loss while giving up more than 500 yards of offense and five passing touchdowns.
They look to turn around that result – as well as last year’s start to the season – with a good showing Saturday.
The defense will likely play a key role in any success UNH has.
“We feel very confident that the defensive side of the ball can be a point of strength for us,” Santos said.
Lacey and his secondary mates in senior cornerbacks Prince Smith, Jr. and Isiah Perkins, junior safety Evan Horn and sophomore safety Pop Bush lead from the back end of the defense.
“You look at last year, we were a top five team in the country in defensive touchdowns because of those guys,” Santos said. “We had a ball-hawking mentality and I think we can expect a similar type energy and effort out of those guys.”
The Wildcats scored five defensive touchdowns last year. Horn returned two interceptions for scores and Lacey one.
Overall, UNH ranked fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association in points allowed (22.8 per game), second in overall defense (310 yards per game), first in passing defense (181.3 yards per game) and fifth in rushing defense (128.7 yards per game.
Santos passed for five touchdowns, two of them to David Ball, for a 35-24 win in his first start against Rutgers on Sept. 11, 2004.
The previous week Santos came off the bench late in the first half for an injured Mike Granieri to lead UNH past defending FCS champion Delaware.
Rutgers beat Michigan State, 19-14, the week before losing to the Wildcats.
UNH finished 10-3 in 2004 and made the NCAA playoffs for the first time in a decade.
The Wildcats started an unprecedented run of 14 straight tournament appearances that year.
UNH faces Rhode Island in its home opener on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium.
UNH’s game against Rhode Island kicks off a stretch of three straight home games.
The ’Cats play Duquesne on Saturday, Sept. 28 at 1 p.m. in a Family Weekend game.
UNH takes on Elon for Homecoming on Saturday, Oct. 5, at 3:30 p.m.
Holy Cross lost its opener, 45-7, on Saturday at FBS opponent Navy. Senior tailback Domenic Cozer, a second team All Patriot league selection in 2018, was sidelined by illness for the opener.
Holy Cross finished 5-6 overall and 4-2 in the Patriot League last year.
Former UNH assistant coach Scott James is in his second year as defensive coordinator at Holy Cross.
Former Wildcat standout cornerback and assistant coach Casey DeAndrade is in his first year as an assistant coach with the Crusaders.