DURHAM, N.H. - Guinea pig. That's what Marty Scarano, the animated New Hampshire athletic director, still calls Ricky Santos. Before he arrived, everyone here thought a fleet-footed quarterback was needed for Chip Kelly's offense to work.

By the time Santos finished his career in 2007 - a Walter Payton Award tucked under his arm - everyone there was convinced of what Kelly has been telling Philadelphia since his hire. It's less about the feet than it is about the brain. It's less about the speed of a particular play than it is the speed with which several plays are executed.

"Ricky was molded in Chip's mind," Scarano was saying in his office recently. "And he was the prototype for what you see now. Option read. Adequate passer. Not particularly fast, but smart and competitive.

"We scored a zillion points when Ricky was here."

You want hope that Chip Kelly will figure out how to implement his high-octane offense next season? Your best hope is this story of the lightly regarded Massachusetts quarterback who finished among the NCAA's all-time leading passers under Kelly.

In the winter of 2003, their proud program still losing more than it was winning, New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell and offensive coordinator Kelly took a trip to Bellingham, Mass., for one last look at an average- speed, average-arm quarterback who had somehow won two state championships and set the state record for touchdown passes, including seven in a single Thanksgiving Day game.

That said, no school had offered the 6-1 Santos a scholarship, and if any of the five quarterbacks they targeted ahead of him had accepted their scholarship offer, McDonnell and Kelly would not have traveled the 2 hours each way to watch the kid play basketball that cold February night.

What they saw that night was not a phenom, but a leader.

"In terms of overall athletic ability, I'm average," Santos was saying Tuesday from his home in Bellingham. "Average arm. Average speed. Above-average game management and vision of the field. I just had a knack for finding guys in open space. Understanding situations. But I wasn't very tall. Had a 4.8 40. I wasn't explosive in any sense of the word. I just found ways to make plays."

First he had to find a way to play. Redshirted his first year there, buried behind three other quarterbacks when spring practice began, Santos did not immediately make McDonnell or Kelly look smart.

"Chip has little tolerance for people who don't put the work in," Scarano says. "And early on, Ricky Santos didn't put the time in."

Santos laughs about this now. "We butted heads early on," he says. "Generally he doesn't like freshmen and sophomores because they don't know what they're doing. Once I developed more and understood the demands and what he expected, we got along a lot better."

Santos was still third on the depth chart when practice began that fall. And that's only because one quarterback ahead of him transferred out. What followed is still UNH/Kelly legend. The backup suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason and the starter, Mainland's Mike Granieri, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the first half of the season opener against Delaware.

Kelly loved Granieri, whom he calls "the most explosive and dynamic" quarterback he had coached to that point. Granieri was big, smart, had 4.6 speed and could run just about any play Kelly could concoct. After finishing the previous season with four wins in their final five games, the Wildcats were poised to finally return to the FCS playoffs after an absence of nearly a decade.

Delaware, the defending FCS national champ - was an immediate test.

Santos completed 10 of 11 passes, including a 44-yard TD pass to seal the upset. "It wasn't like guys were wide-open," then-Delaware coach K.C. Keeler was saying Tuesday on Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live." "He stuck it in there."

A week later against a Rutgers team that had upset Michigan State the week before, Santos engineered a shocking, 35-24 victory with an uptempo game plan light on runs and heavy on short passes. Santos and the Wildcats won nine of 11 regular-season games that year and began a streak of nine straight playoff appearances that continued through this past season.

"Chip doesn't have to have a running quarterback," Santos says. "I said that to a lot of people who have asked me whether I thought Chip would struggle in Philly, whether he would have to keep [Michael] Vick in order to run his offense. You look how we did it: I would run for four or five big first downs in a game, but I would run in man coverage when I knew the situation."

Says Kelly: "He ran because they made him run. There's a lot of self-preservation in that."

The Wildcats were 39-14 in Santos' 4 years as their quarterback, and he was named to All-America teams in three of those seasons. As a junior, he received the Walter Payton Award as the nation's top offensive player in the FCS. His jersey number, 2, was retired by the school.

Not bad for a guinea pig.

"It wasn't designed for me to take over the game with my feet," says Santos, who has bounced around the Canadian Football League since going to the Kansas City Chiefs' camp in 2008. "There would be games where I wouldn't complete a pass over 20 yards. But we would just go fast and force people to play base coverage and methodically go down the field just picking them apart. We did it with the arm, we did it with the quick passing game, the screens, the different stuff that the Eagles, with that offense . . . ?"

A pause. A hearty laugh.

"I think that Nick Foles would excel at something like that," says the guinea pig. "I think that the Eagles are poised to have a very good year."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/