ORLANDO – Ryan Santoso grew up in the Florida panhandle in a town called Pace, right outside Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico.
Somehow, someway, he wound up becoming the starting kicker for Minnesota, as a redshirt freshman, with potential game-changing duties Thursday in the Citrus Bowl against Missouri.
He'll have about 20 friends and family members in the stands, even though Pace is about a six-hour drive from Orlando.
"It's awesome getting to come back and play here," Santoso said.
The 6-6 Santoso kicked in the Under Armour All-American game as a high school senior, but his only other Division-I scholarship offers came from Southern Mississippi and Southern Alabama.
He jumped at Minnesota's offer, insisting he wasn't too concerned about the weather.
"It was all about Coach [Jerry] Kill and his staff," Santoso said. "They were father figures, and I'd seen what he had done at past programs, and I just knew he was on the rise."
The Gopher have 13 players from Florida on their roster, and four others have key roles — defensive end Theiren Cockran (Miami), linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (Fort Myers) and defensive backs Damarius Travis (Pensacola) and Derrick Wells (Fort Myers).
But Santoso's role might be the most stressful. Several bowl games have come down to one kick this postseason.
Memphis' Jake Elliott hit a 54-yarder to send the Miami Beach Bowl to double overtime, where the Tigers defeated BYU. The next night, San Diego State's Donny Hageman missed a 34-yarder wide right with 20 seconds left in a one-point Poinsettia Bowl loss to Navy. Boston College's Mike Knoll shanked an extra point in OT, which set the stage for Penn State's Sam Ficken's Pinstripe Bowl-winning PAT.
Now, along comes Santoso, who has hit 11 of 17 field-goal attempts for a 64.7 percentage that ranks 89th in the nation. He was 3-for-3 with a 48-yarder at Michigan, and he drilled a 52-yard game-winner against Purdue. Santoso also turned 53 percent of his kickoffs into touchbacks, ranking 25th in the nation.
"Mentally, I've just grown so much … going through ups and downs," Santoso said. "I didn't have the season I wanted to, but it's just something to look back on and fix and always get better and better."