His touchdown grab to beat Penn State as a freshman made him a campus hero. He firmed his grasp on fans’ hearts with dominating performances against Notre Dame and Wisconsin the next year. And his 10-catch, 123-yard performance two weeks ago against Northwestern reminded everyone of just how super he can be.

But who is Mario Manningham?

Is he the speedy, dominant receiver on nearly every pre-season All-American list? Or is he the mysterious receiver who’s been making headlines for all the wrong reasons?

Entering this season, it seemed like that question should been a no-brainer.

At Michigan Media Day in August, Manningham was asked what he wants to be remembered for at year’s end.

“I want to play hard every game. That’s it,” he said. “That’s all I want to do – play hard every game.”

His actions, however, haven’t exactly matched his words.

With the Oregon game all but determined, Manningham gave up on a deep ball thrown by Ryan Mallett in the second half.

Incidents like that prompted Michigan coach Lloyd Carr to call out his star receiver, a rare lashing that’s usually kept within the walls of Fort Schembechler.

But questions about Manningham’s effort have abounded since Carr’s public criticism.

Manningham has short-armed certain passes. He simply hasn’t run at full speed on others. It’s not always blatant and it’s not happening every down, but it’s enough to be a direct contradiction of what he hoped for at the beginning of the season.

Still, Manningham’s problems extend beyond a dogged route every now and then.

The junior watched Saturday’s game in street clothes after Carr suspended him for one game. It was reported the suspension stemmed from a violation of a team rule, but Carr refused to confirm or deny that. Senior quarterback Chad Henne said it was for off-field issues, though.

And considering fellow wide receivers Adrian Arrington (domestic violence charges) and Greg Mathews (kicking an opponent in the groin) each had to sit out just an opening drive for their respective issues in the past year, Manningham’s mystery mishap must have been a pretty big deal.

This behavior is a contradiction to another pre-season Manningham comment.

At Michigan Media Day, the soft-spoken receiver seemed ready and willing to break out of his shell and take more of a leadership role within the receiving corps and the team.

That desire seemed odd, since Manningham is shy, but his teammates confirmed Manningham was leading by example much more after Steve Breaston’s graduation.

“Mario’s always showing people how to work hard,” Arrington said. “That’s one thing he strives to do – he tries to set a great example for all the younger players on the team.”

Manningham may be setting an example for his younger teammates, but is it the right one?

Trailing by nine in the Northwestern game, Manningham took a lateral six yards down the field. After being tackled near the Northwestern sideline, he got up and celebrated his mediocre gain in front of the Wildcat bench before heading back to the huddle. Again, Michigan was down nine. Against Northwestern. Following a six-yard gain.

A game earlier, he celebrated the victory over Penn State by doing the Worm in the backfield on the game’s final play. No, that’s not a punishable-by-death offense, but it’s safe to say Carr wasn’t asking Manningham for tips following the receiver’s impromptu dance session.

So what’s the deal? Is this a serious problem that’s affecting the team, or just a case of an immature kid who needs to grow up?

It depends who you ask.

Put senior captain Mike Hart in the no-big-deal camp:

“People want everyone to be like Jake (Long), be like Mike (Hart), be like Chad (Henne), people who aren’t going to do anything wrong,” Hart said. “People are going to change over time, you know, you mature. . Everybody’s not going to be perfect when they get here, and not be who fans want them to be. So you know he’s maturing, and everything’s a learning experience.”

Henne, another senior leader, sees things a little differently:

“It definitely it hurts us because last week (against Northwestern), obviously, Mario had a great week and then he sits out this week. It definitely throws timing off for us,” Henne said. “Especially this whole offseason, we definitely had some difficulties off the field. To get involved in that stuff and kind of ruin the camaraderie of the team, it really hurts us.”

Carr’s opinion seems to fall in between his two stars’:

“When you’re in your third year in college, you’re not a kid anymore,” Carr said. “What I’m hoping is his maturation process will improve here, because he is a great kid, and he’s a very, very talented guy.

“I want him to do the things he’s capable of doing, and I believe in him. I believe he will.”

So who is Mario Manningham?

Your guess is as good as mine. He still has the potential to be the next Braylon, but also has the attitude to be the next could-be star to burn out before he fully shines.

Whoever he is, it may be time for an expectation shift.

Those hoping for a Super Mario that would eventually don the No. 1 jersey and put pressure on some of Michigan’s all-time great receivers should probably file that thought in the pipe-dream department.

Instead, fans should probably just hope there’s a chance Manningham can still be the receiver he wanted to become at the start of the season.

– Bell can be reached at scotteb@umich.edu.

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