Van linebacker Dalton Santos picks Tennessee

Van linebacker Dalton Santos smiles with his family after announcing he will play college football at Tennessee. (Sarah A. Miller | Tyler Morning Telegraph)

VAN — After weeks of sleepless nights, hundreds of miles on the road and second guessing, Dalton Santos didn’t flinch when he made his college commitment.

He’s off to the Rocky Top.

The Van middle linebacker, ranked No. 1 in the nation at his position by ESPN, announced his commitment to the University of Tennessee on Friday, ending a process that has been a whirlwind for Santos, as well as Volunteers and Texas A&M fans.

“The coaching staff was great, and the facilities are off the charts. Right when we got there, we felt the love from everyone — the coaches, the people. The passion they have for football at Tennessee, it’s amazing,” Santos said. “And it’s the SEC, man. If you want to showcase your skills, that’s the best place you can do it at.”

Santos originally committed to Oklahoma State, but pulled out in June after more offers started rolling in. He and his father, Albert Santos, took a two-week long trip last month to make unofficial visits to Texas A&M, Alabama, Tennessee and Oklahoma. He narrowed his choice to Tennessee and A&M, and since then, he had been inundated with phone calls, Facebook posts and text messages, all inquiring about his future

“These last couple of weeks have been really hard on me. I thought I had it stressful with just football, but when it comes down to a life-changing decision, it’s so much worse,” Santos said. “It’s been a lot of thinking, a lot of praying and a lot of talking to my family. I’ve tried to sit back and enjoy a lot of it, because a lot of kids don’t get this kind of opportunity. It’s a blessing. It really is.”

Santos is a fast, physical middle linebacker who drew attention and scholarship offers from almost every school in the Southeastern and Big 12 Conferences. At 6-2, 250 pounds and a 4.6-second laser time in the 40-yard dash, his ability to stop the run and manage a defense has been the envy of the nation’s top schools.

“(In the SEC) they’re going to run the ball 40 times a game, and they’re going to try to run the ball down your throat. A guy like me, that’s what you live for,” Santos said.

Van coach Jared Moffatt, who was on staff for nine years at state power Denton Ryan, said he’s seen great athletes come through his programs, but Santos is a rarity. He finished his junior season with 148 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and six pass breakups.

“Very few kids are as big and strong as him and can run like he does. I don’t know if I’ve ever been around one who can put that kind of speed together with his strength and size,” Moffatt said. “That’s what puts him over the top.”

Oral commitments are nonbinding until National Signing Day on Feb. 1, the first day high school seniors can sign letters of intent with colleges.

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