BY GABE EDELSON: HONEST GABE
Published October 18, 2005
He's a receiver with pillows for hands, so it's no surprise that Mario Manningham's middle name is Cashmere. Honestly.
And a gigantic piece of Michigan's puzzle fell neatly into place with two soft-gloved catches on Saturday, courtesy of the true freshman.
The first came with 9:32 left in the fourth quarter and Penn State ahead, 18-10. Chad Henne dropped back and tossed a 33-yard strike down the left sideline, where Manningham had exploded into full gallop. The receiver effortlessly blazed by cornerback Justin King, beating his defender to the outside before leaning forward to scoop the ball off his shoelaces as he crossed the goal line. King, known for his athleticism, floundered in Manningham's wake, diving in a futile attempt to bring down the Wolverines' newest - and possibly most dangerous - weapon. After a two-point conversion, the score was tied.
The second grab was perhaps less flashy, but certainly more memorable. With one second left and the Nittany Lions up by four, Henne found Manningham as the receiver slanted in toward the middle of the end zone. The quarterback fired a 10-yard laser, and the freshman secured the prized pigskin tightly against his chest for the dramatic, game-winning reception.
Manningham finished with just three catches for 49 yards, but his stats were deceiving. He played far less than half of the Wolverines' offensive snaps, and Henne didn't even throw to his newest target until early in the fourth quarter, when a poorly placed ball went out of bounds to stall Michigan's first drive of the final frame. Every subsequent pass from Henne to Manningham was successful. The aforementioned pair of catches went for scores, while a six-yard completion on the Wolverines' final drive put Michigan on the 10-yard line - the launching pad for the most important play of the Wolverines' season.
Michigan's search for a deep-threat receiver and playmaker came to an end under the dark sky on Saturday, as Manningham was carried off the field on his teammate's shoulders.
No, Manningham - at six feet tall and 183 pounds - doesn't have the extra three inches and 25 pounds that Braylon Edwards carried on his gifted frame last season. And we haven't seen the first-year stud showcase the leaping ability that made No. 1 seem automatic on jump-balls from Henne in 2004. But when Manningham is one-on-one with an unlucky defensive back and the ball is thrown his way, I just have a gut feeling that he's going to make something happen. And I can't say I've ever felt the same way about any receiver - college or pro - in my lifetime, aside from Braylon.
Manningham hails from Warren, Ohio, located in the heart of Buckeye country. Ironically, it's just about an hour away from Cleveland, the city Braylon now calls home with the NFL's Browns.
In 2001, Braylon's freshman season, he had just three catches for 38 yards. In six games this season, Manningham has 16 receptions for 296 yards and five scores.
Manningham isn't better than Braylon. And he's definitely not the same type of wideout. I don't even want to compare the two.
But Manningham fills much of the void left by Braylon's departure. Redshirt junior Steve Breaston has tried hard to become Michigan's speed receiver, but early-season injuries and Breaston's subsequent pressing may have submarined the effort. With Manningham heading downfield, Breaston can more effectively play special teams ace - where he's thrived since 2003 - and slot receiver.
Jason Avant remains the Wolverines' possession expert. The senior co-captain has performed superbly, with 53 grabs for 662 yards and five touchdowns. Manningham's style is a perfect complement to that of Avant, who relishes going over the middle to make difficult, physical receptions.
When Manningham gets unleashed, he tends to make extraordinary plays. The freshman scored a touchdown on a 49-yard flea flicker at Wisconsin. His 43-yard score at Michigan State came on a post route set up by a play-action fake. Both touchdowns on Saturday followed typical dropbacks by Henne.
But no matter what the scenario, Manningham has found ways to cross the goal line. He has scored on nearly a third of his touches this year. The first catch of his Wolverine career was a 25-yard touchdown - Michigan's only score of the day - in the desperate closing minutes against Notre Dame. Manningham is credited with three of Michigan's four longest passing plays in 2005, and they've all been good for six points.
I'd like to see Manningham get more playing time, even if that means replacing Breaston in the starting lineup. Wouldn't you like his chances going against opposing cornerbacks on an every-down basis? From what he's shown us so far, he's earned it. His on-field production speaks for itself.
Sure, I know he's only an inexperienced freshman with one career start. I'm also aware that start came against Eastern Michigan. He's never had five catches in his college career, and he doesn't always show up yet - two catches for 15 yards against Minnesota provides an indication of his consistency.
Still, Mario Manningham is going to be a fantastic player. And I think he'll get there sooner rather than later. He just needs a chance.
- Gabe Edelson can be reached at email@example.com.