Carolina#039;s smallest player keeps coming up big

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 28, 2004

HOUSTON - At 23, Ricky Manning Jr. is the youngest member of the Carolina Panthers.

At 5-foot-8, he's the shortest.

As a rookie, he's also among the lowest-paid. He notes that he lives in an apartment near the stadium, while his fellow cornerbacks have big houses.

Email newsletter signup

Yet in recent weeks, the little guy has come up big. And now that he has the Super Bowl as a platform, he's hoping to cash in.

''A guy like me, I like the attention,'' Manning said Tuesday. ''I strive for it, because I know it means you're doing something good. It sets up a lot of opportunities for me outside of football. You want to market yourself out there. I mean, it's great.''

Manning has gone from face in the crowd to starring role thanks to his performance in the last two playoff games.

It began in overtime of the divisional round game against St. Louis when he snatched a pass from Rams receiver Torry Holt. That set up the winning touchdown in double overtime, prompting teammate Brentson Buckner to call Manning's pickoff the most important play of the season.

Then Manning intercepted three more passes against Philadelphia in the NFC championship. They came in a span of four drives, with the exception being a one-play series at the end of the first half.

He ended the Eagles' first drive of the second half with a pickoff at the 14, helping preserve a 7-3 lead. The next one led to the touchdown that made it 14-3 and helped turn the publicity seeking rookie from UCLA into the only Manning playing in the Super Bowl.

What, you were expecting Peyton Manning, NFL co-MVP and son of former star quarterback Archie?

It's just Ricky Manning Jr., who didn't become entrenched as a starter until the final month of the season, and only then because of injuries.

He finished the regular season with three interceptions, tying for the team lead. His three pickoffs against Philadelphia tied for second-most in a playoff game; four in one postseason also is among the best.

''Ricky's a player,'' said Carolina running back DeShaun Foster, who was a year ahead of Manning at UCLA. ''He's not the prototype corner, but he's going to play like it. Being a rookie, people are going to attack him. He just does his job and plays well.''

Manning made all-conference three times in his four years at UCLA, even though he spent his summers playing outfield in the Minnesota Twins farm system. Despite good speed, he couldn't steal first base, so he decided to focus on football.

High hopes for the draft fizzled when he went 82nd. He was the 11th cornerback picked and the fourth overall choice by the Panthers.

He began the season as the third cornerback, then replaced the injured Terry Cousin in the starting lineup with four games left.

Instead of wearing out late in the season, he went on a hot streak. He returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown in the finale against the Giants, then allowed just two catches and broke up two passes against Dallas in the wild-card game.

Reggie Howard, Carolina's other starting cornerback, isn't surprised by Manning's emergence. He's seen him make the same plays in practice all season.

''It was just about him getting comfortable out there on the field,'' Howard said. ''His confidence level is real high, which was never a problem with him. He's just out there making big-time plays and coming up big.''

Manning understands that he's only a rookie, which means he's still learning. Each week he's getting to know different players, different coverages.

About the only constant is having to bring breakfast every Saturday for all the other defensive backs.

''I have been able to get in there and learn under fire,'' Manning said. ''I'm getting the experience early and it'll help me out in future years, I'm sure.''