Work in Sports
Short but strong
Undersized Manning helps lead UCLA back from brink
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
Ricky Manning Jr. stepped onto the UCLA campus in the middle of a mess -- maybe one of the biggest messes ever to slop around a college campus -- and he's come out smelling like a rose. Which, at UCLA, is always a welcome scent.
A year after a miserable 4-7 season, lowlighted by a scandal involving football players using parking permits intended for the handicapped, Manning and the Bruins are undefeated at 3-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country. Saturday, they begin their Pac-10 schedule against Oregon.
The Bruins' resurgence may be the biggest story of the young football season, and Manning is playing a starring role in it. Forced by the scandal into the starting lineup last season as a true freshman, Manning is a veritable veteran now in a rapidly improving defense.
For sure, there are still questions about UCLA and, for that matter, about Manning. But the way things are going, the questions may not linger for long.
"I try not to pay attention to the hype all that much. If I get a chance, I might peek at it," says Manning after a practice this week, addressing the suddenly lofty expectations for the Bruins. "But when all is said and done, we'll see."
The Bruins, unranked at season's start, have cracked the Top 10 because two of their wins came against teams ranked No. 3 at the time. Still, there are questions about the quality of those wins, considering one was against Alabama (which has since dropped out of the rankings) and the other against Michigan (which has beaten only Bowling Green and Rice).
The questions surrounding Manning can be summed up in one hyphenated personal statistic: 5-foot-9.
"He's not real tall," admits UCLA assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Bob Field, "but he's a packed-up little guy."
Short cornerbacks are generally considered about as useful as polls at Penn State. But Manning is strong. He can leap. And, in something unusual for a lot of corners, no matter what their size, Manning is not afraid to hit or tackle.
He is third on the team in tackles, and his no-fear method of taking on even the biggest of receivers or running backs has made him a fan favorite.
"Ricky will throw it up in there," Field says. "He doesn't tackle up high. He's taken the legs out of a lot of people. He's like a little rocket down there."
Manning worked hard in the offseason to add some weight and now plays at 180 pounds (up from 167 last season). He also increased his speed to the point where he's running about a 4.5-second 40. Those things alone make him better than most corners.
But when he's going against a 6-foot-5 receiver -- or, heck, even against a 6-footer -- being 5-foot-9 can have its disadvantages.
"'Course, if it's a 6-6 guy at the 2-yard line and the quarterback throws up a jump ball, that can be a problem," Manning admits. "But it hasn't been a problem yet. It's like they say: You can't catch a ball without your arms."
Manning tries to neutralize his height disadvantage by playing good position, forcing the quarterback to make the toughest possible throw. He knows when he has defensive help and where it's coming from. He'll take away a post route that could be a big gainer in favor of giving up an out pattern or something underneath.
"The bigger guys, they are easier to get up into," Manning explains. "I'd rather play them than the little guys who run all over the place. You can get all under them."
His technique and field smarts have earned him the right to be on the field for every defensive snap -- he returns punts for the Bruins, too -- and his skills and speed have convinced Field to blitz Manning whenever the opportunity arises. He has one sack and another tackle for a loss in the three games, along with one interception.
Manning's play has pushed a defense that was awful last season into much better numbers in 2000. The Bruins are allowing almost 140 fewer yards and seven fewer points a game. And this, remember, after playing two Top 10 teams.
"I remember like, during recruiting, lots of guy pumping me up and saying I could come in and play my first year. And I was like, 'OK,'" Manning says. "But then I got here and I was like 'I don't know ...'
"But now I feel like I was supposed to feel the first year. I'm not making as many freshman mistakes. I can read receivers' routes a lot better now. Last year, just lining up in the right spots was something. I don't have to worry about that now."
Manning also plays baseball professionally as an outfielder for the Minnesota Twins' rookie league affiliate. He played with the Ft. Myers Miracle of the Gulf Coast League up until late summer, and he'll take up baseball again in late spring, after school is finished.
Right now, he's not sure which way he's headed once he's finished at UCLA, baseball or football. Right now, he's hardly worried about it.
"You never know, the way I'm playing now," he says with a laugh. "Hopefully, I can go football and baseball. Who knows? I'm just going to play both sports as long as I can."
If he decides to stick around UCLA football, as he's said he will, Manning could be included in the company of some of the best defensive backs the Bruins ever have had, a group that includes Eric Turner, Kenny Easley, Carlton Gray and Carnell Lake.
"I think he'll be one of the top corners that we've had at UCLA. I think he has that potential," Field says. "The longer he's in our scheme, just having that awareness and maturing as a player ... I think he's really on track for that."
If that's how Manning turns out, that would smell really sweet for the Bruins.