The purpose of this feature is to highlight small-school and under-the-radar guys who show glimpses of potential. The series began with a short look at Emporia State free safety Lyndell Johnson, and was followed by a story on Avila running back Kelwin Burke Jr.
Travis Manning’s first love was basketball. Like many good athletes, he played AAU ball growing up, and as a guard at Belleville West High School in Illinois, he was even named MVP of the 2009 Denver Miller Basketball Tournament as a senior.
“But my (senior) year, I got tired of basketball because AAU was an all-year thing,” Manning said. “I could take advantage of my athleticism in football.”
Manning, who now stands 6-feet tall and weighs 196 pounds, re-joined Bellevue’s football team his senior year (he also played as a freshman) and showed enough potential to earn a scholarship offer to Northwest Missouri, where his teams have gone 73-11 and won two national titles (2009 and 2013) since he arrived there in 2009.
“At Northwest, with the family atmosphere and winning, I now have a passion for (football) and would love to do it for a living,” Manning said.
Manning, who also a two-time all-conference performer in the hurdles at Northwest, developed into a three-year starter in the defensive secondary for the Bearcats. As a sophomore and junior, he started at safety, recording 93 tackles, seven interceptions and 13 pass breakups during that two-year period.
In 2014, as a senior, he moved to cornerback and recorded 32 tackles, 10 pass breakups and one interception as the Bearcats’ weakside corner who, he says, occasionally followed around the opponent’s best receiver in their press-man scheme.
“They say corners have a short memory if you do happen to get beat, but last year, thank God, I didn’t have to deal with that much,” Manning said.
Now, Manning is considered a sleeper prospect in this year’s NFL Draft. He signed with an agent, Joseph Clayborne, who also represents former Mizzou stars Kony Ealy and Markus Golden, and moved to Dallas, where he began working out at 4th and Inches Sports Performance, the same place that cornerback Pierre Desir, a fourth-round pick of the Browns last year, used to turn heads at the Combine.
Manning did not receive a Combine invite, but he did have a solid Pro Day performance in late March. Weighing in at 196 pounds — 10 pounds heavier than when he began his training, he says — Manning ran a 4.4 40-yard dash, bench pressed 225 pounds 15 times and recorded a 37 1/2-inch vertical.
“Overall, I think I had a pretty good Pro Day,” Manning said. “Scouts felt same way I did — they thought I had a great day. Every scout I got to talk to afterward said that. It definitely helped me out as far as my draft stock goes.”
Multiple teams, including the Chiefs, were at the Pro Day. Manning said the St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles are among the teams that have shown interest in him.
“I can recognize formations, I can get people lined up and I’m a great athlete,” Manning said, when asked for the reasons why teams should take a chance on him. “I feel like the big thing I need to work on is my off-man coverage because we played so much press at Northwest.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Manning looks back on his six years at Northwest — he redshirted in 2009 and received a medical redshirt in 2010 — fondly, and is grateful for the experience that set him on an NFL-bound course.
“I wouldn’t take anything back after this experience,” Manning said.
You can check out Manning’s highlights here.