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UCLA football: Steven Manfro - should have seen it coming

Former Valencia standout is catching attention at UCLA

Posted: August 30, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 30, 2012 1:55 a.m.

UCLA running back and Valencia High graduate Steven Manfro (33) has turned heads during the offseason, earning the praise of former and current head coaches.

 

Surprise?

To others.

Not to those who saw Steven Manfro play football at Valencia High School in 2009 and 2010.

The Santa Clarita Valley saw him shift, burst and bulldoze as the area’s premier running back.

But at UCLA, Manfro was just another player — not the premier running back he was at Valencia when he was the valley’s football player of the year in 2010.

He came into the spring buried deep on the depth chart as a redshirt freshman.

And in one day, he burst onto the scene.

During the Bruins’ spring game on May 5, he carried the ball two times for 20 yards, caught seven passes for 105 yards and broke a kickoff return 80 yards for a touchdown.

“Steven came in this spring, I don’t know if anyone knew a whole lot about him and he just burst onto the scene,” says first-year UCLA head coach Jim Mora. “Every day he did something special. He’d break a run, he’d make a catch in the open field, he’d make somebody miss. The players just love him. The coaches, we love him.”

Just like that, Manfro put himself on lists of all type — ESPN.com’s spring’s top 10 breakthrough players, Athlon Sports’ Pac-12 breakout players for 2012, to name a few.

“Coming into the spring game, I had to show my all and make some room for me so I could play,” Manfro says. “Getting out there playing in the Rose Bowl was awesome. I tried not to make any mistakes.”

Mora laughs at something Manfro asked during the game, which showed just how hard he tried to play mistake-free football.

The Bruins were running a two-minute drill and Mora jumped into the huddle and told the offense that it didn’t want to score too fast and leave time on the clock.

“Steven says, ‘If I break away, does that mean I can’t score?’” Mora recalls. “And I said, ‘No. If you break away you go score,’ thinking he’s not going to break it. He takes the ball, he goes 60 yards and he gets knocked out at the 5.”

Says UCLA starting running back Jonathan Franklin: “Coming out of the blue’s definitely a great phrase for Steven Manfro. We just gave him the ball one day in practice and he made a play, and he’s been doing it every day since.

He’s going to be an electrifying player in college football. He’s going to surprise a lot of people this year. He has a bright future ahead of him.”

There’s that word “surprise” again.

But at Valencia, people knew what they were getting with the running back.

He set the Santa Clarita Valley’s single-season rushing record with 2,553 yards in 2010, and he also set the single-game rushing record with a 420-yard performance against West Ranch on Oct. 15, 2010. He averaged 28 yards per carry in that game.

Manfro was All-State, All-CIF and All-Santa Clarita Valley and Foothill League player of the year.

Yet he wasn’t recruited heavily.

He received two offers — one from Wyoming and a late one from UCLA after then-coach Rick Neuheisel watched a New England Patriots game and thought Manfro was a lot like diminutive, hard-nosed running back Danny Woodhead.

“I saw enough on film of Steven to know that he is a great football player and I kept wondering what it was that I was seeing that others weren’t because there wasn’t a lot of activity around him,” Neuheisel says.

Manfro redshirted last year, meaning he didn’t travel with the team to away games.

Instead, he watched UCLA football like a regular fan — from a dorm room with fellow redshirt teammates.

“That was definitely the toughest thing for me, thinking I might have a chance to play and competing for it,” says the 5-foot-10-inch, 195-pound running back. “They had enough depth and put me on the scout team. It was tough practicing, preparing for games and not traveling to games and not helping the team win.”

That will all change this year.

There are plans for Manfro. Lots of plans.

“I think he’s really going to contribute,” Mora says. “He’ll contribute on the return game. He’ll contribute on special teams as a cover guy. We’ll work him into the rotation as a running back. We can split him out. He can run down the field and catch passes. He’s very versatile. He’s not just a running back.”

Just to show that he wasn’t a one-game wonder, Manfro returned the opening kick of UCLA’s Aug. 19 scrimmage 80 yards for a touchdown.

If you ask those around UCLA, they’d say it wasn’t a surprise.

Signal staff writer Dan Agnew contributed to this story.

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