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Ex-UND standouts now turn their attention to the pro game

(From left) Running backs Brady Oliveira, James Johannesson, John Santiago and Teddy Sherva talk with assistant coach Malcolm Agnew last spring at the UND High Performance Center. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

UND running backs coach Malcolm Agnew played in a college football all-star game, spent time in an NFL training camp and has worked as an NFL scout.

If you're former UND star running backs Brady Oliveira and John Santiago trying to push to land an opportunity in the NFL, how's that for a resource?

Oliveira and Santiago wrapped up their senior seasons in November and two of the best backs in program history are in the process of becoming pro athletes. UND cornerback Deion Harris and defensive lineman Austin Cieslak have also been working toward pro futures.

Twice per week, Santiago and Oliveira meet with Agnew to talk about the future.

They talk about NFL front office interview etiquette, how to treat the showcase events like job interviews, how to shake hands with potential future employers and how to illustrate plays on a whiteboard.

"Some people are going in there blindfolded," Oliveira said. "(Agnew) has been, seriously, such an amazing resource. If I didn't have him, I'd go in there blind. I'll now make an impression going in there with so much knowledge. This kid knows his stuff."

UND has had 31 of 32 NFL teams either come to practice in Grand Forks or watch the team at games this year. Six of the nine Canadian Football League teams, especially with the draw of Oliveira as a Winnipeg native, have done the same.

As Santiago and Oliveira look to the pros, Agnew has provided guidance thanks to a background that knows each side of the process.

After playing at Oregon State and Southern Illinois, Agnew spent the 2015 preseason with the Green Bay Packers before an injury forced his retirement. After the injury, Agnew spent the next seven months as a scout for the Los Angeles Rams before taking an assistant coaching role at Nebraska.

"He talks about things to expect ... who to trust, who not to trust," Santiago said. "He's been through the process, so has his dad and his brother."

Malcolm's dad, Ray Agnew, played 11 seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with the Rams in 1999. He's worked for the Rams since his retirement in 2000.

Malcolm's brother, Ray III, also had brief NFL stints with the Cleveland Browns (2014), Dallas Cowboys (2015) and Washington Redskins (2015).

"I think I have a great deal of advice," Agnew said. "You best believe I'm coaching up the guys on what they should and shouldn't do. Things like knowing what to look for when picking out an agent. I feel like I'm wasting myself if I'm not being a good resource."

Santiago and Oliveira are both nearing the process of signing an agent. After signing with an agent, the players will schedule where to train and finalize plans for pro day testing.

Both Santiago and Oliveira had decorated careers in Grand Forks. The four-year regulars have drawn interest from pro scouts for years.

Oliveira, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound back, runs with a punishing style that earned the nickname the "Manitoba Moose." This year, he had 162 carries for 936 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns.

Oliveira finished his career with 2,822 career yards—good for seventh all-time on UND's career rushing yardage list.

Santiago, a 5-9, 170-pound Andover, Minn., native, was the lightning to Oliveira's thunder. The three-time All-American battled injuries in 2018 and finished with 97 carries for 558 yards (5.8 per carry) in eight games.

Santiago had 18 carries for 139 yards in Week 2 against Washington of the Pac-12.

During his career, Santiago has ran for 3,717 yards, which ranks third all-time at UND behind only Phillip Moore and Shannon Burnell.

UND hasn't made a mark in the NFL in recent years. The last UND player to be selected in the NFL draft was offensive lineman Chris Kuper, who was picked in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the Denver Broncos. Kuper played for the Broncos from 2006-13.

Since Kuper, UND has had a number of players land in NFL training camps but each were cut before the season including Greg Hardin (Broncos), Weston Dressler (Kansas City Chiefs) and Will Ratelle (Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons).

Former UND safety Cole Reyes didn't land with an NFL team yet, but he was drafted by the Alliance of American Football's Phoenix franchise. The AAF is an upstart league scheduled to begin in February.

"This is what you strive to do," Santiago said. "You dream as a kid to play in the NFL. I always told my mom I'm going to help her out, being we weren't the most fortunate family growing up. I thank God every moment to have this opportunity. It's going to be fun. I'm just going to enjoy it as much as I can and make the most of it."

Santiago and Oliveira are nearing the time to leave Grand Forks. Santiago is leaning toward working out in Tampa Bay, while Oliveira is ready to work at a facility in Minneapolis.

Santiago, as well as Harris, have committed to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl—the same event Agnew competed in after his college career. Agnew had eight carries for 53 yards in the 2015 game.

"I hope to get picked up by a team and things work out for me," Santiago said. "The NFLPA is going to be huge importance for me to do well and the pro day is the same kind of interview."

The NFLPA event is Jan. 19 in Pasadena, Calif., at the Rose Bowl. Oliveira will attend the College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas, Jan. 5-9.

"I was blessed to be invited," Oliveira said. "I can showcase my ability against FBS guys and show I'm just as good if not better than those guys. There's over 200 NFL scouts confirmed for the game."

After those events, the athletes will begin to prepare for pro days, where scouts evaluate the speed and strength of players through drills. UND hasn't held a pro day in recent history. Last year, Reyes attended a pro day at Northwestern. Others have gone to pro days at Minnesota and North Dakota State.

Agnew wants that to change. He wants one in Grand Forks in March.

"That's a goal," Agnew said. "We're trying to get that done. We have the indoor (practice facility) and we have the prospects."

Oliveira has a unique opportunity. He's widely considered a CFL first round draft choice, although the ultimate dream remains the NFL.

"My main goal my whole life is to work to play in the NFL," Oliveira said.

The NFL draft is April 25, while the CFL draft is May 3. With a later draft, CFL franchises make selections based on the expected availability of the prospect.

Oliveira's rights will likely be picked up in the CFL draft, despite what takes place with the NFL during or after the draft.

"I'm extremely excited," Oliveira said. "It's a dream of mine forever. Being totally honest, I literally think about the NFL every day. When I wake up, when I'm in the weight room, when I'm doing homework, when I'm going to bed.

"Some might think that's too much, but it's always in the back of my mind. It's always the extra motivation to keep me hungry. There are 32 teams and you have to make one team fall in love with you. I'm excited for what happens. I'm going to keep working extremely hard, stay quiet and humble and thank God for the whole process. It's an opportunity a lot of people don't get."

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department since 2004. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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