Manny Rugamba thrilled for return to Kinnick Stadium to face his old team
In Manny Rugamba’s first college football action, he was playing for Iowa against Miami of Ohio.
It was the 2016 season-opener. It was a third-down situation. The rookie cornerback was not quite prepared.
“It was so loud that I just forgot the call and I forgot the defense I was supposed to be in, to be honest,” Rugamba recalled last week in a telephone interview with the Register. “Luckily, they called a timeout.”
Rugamba’s next college football game will be as a member of the Miami of Ohio Redhawks. The opponent? The No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Rugamba, who transferred after a spotty 2017 season and had to sit out last fall, was dumbfounded when he found out he would be returning to Kinnick. For a game under the lights no less.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Rugamba said. “And then a few days later, I was on Twitter and it said something like, ‘Manny Rugamba not finished at Iowa.’ It kind of shocked me.”
There was a time when Rugamba looked to be in line to be the next big star of the Hawkeye secondary. As a true freshman, in a prime-time opportunity against Michigan, he rose to the occasion with a key interception. The Illinois native started three games that year. He was a Desmond King protégé.
But 2017 got off to a rocky start. Rugamba was suspended for the season-opener against Wyoming for a violation of team rules. He did get his starting job back and had some fine moments, including a career-high nine tackles against Penn State. But it was Josh Jackson who became the superstar.
Rugamba decided to transfer, landing at Miami of Ohio because of the strong connection he had built with coach Chuck Martin in the high school recruiting process.
The Redhawks aren’t releasing a depth chart until Monday, but Rugamba is a likely starter. He certainly will play.
He’s thrilled to go against the Hawkeyes, many of whom are still close friends. He’s even more excited about the setting.
“It’s definitely like a fairy tale in my eyes. Because some guys, you just don’t get the chance to play against your buddies in college. The relationships I built at Iowa during my time, both with the coaching staff and the players, are some that will last a lifetime,” Rugamba said.
“A night game at Kinnick? Everybody should be able to experience that. For me to be able to do that one last time, I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Rugamba didn’t want to talk about the reasons for his transfer. He was looking for a fresh start, and said the year away from competition was very helpful for him, allowing him to rest his body and mind.
He watched a lot of football, more than he’s ever been able to. He checked in frequently on his former teammates, rooting for them all the way in a 9-4 season.
But he wasn’t really scouting the Hawkeyes, knowing they were his next opponent. There’s no need. He’s experienced it.
“It’s not much to scout. They’re a tough football team," Rugamba said. "They’re going to do what they do, and they’re going to do it well. It’s just a matter of stopping it.
“Kinnick Stadium at night, it’s not like many other places at all. So I feel like the biggest thing is composure. And, of course, you know Iowa football. We have to stop the run. If we don’t stop the run, it’s going to be a long game. I know how tough it is to play those guys. You play those guys in practice even, you’ll be walking off the field feeling it. So I know this game is going to be very physical.”
Iowa won that last meeting against Miami of Ohio, 45-21. The Hawkeyes are three-touchdown favorites in this one.
Rugamba knows what he’s in for. His locker used to be next to Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s. They’ve had their battles in practice. Rugamba said it will be fun to renew that.
Rugamba credits Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker for having a big impact on his playing style. He hopes he gets the chance to tell his former coach that.
“Coach Parker’s not much of a talker, especially on game day. You don’t want to be around the guy on game day,” Rugamba laughed. “But absolutely I’ll pay respects to coach Parker.”
Rugamba still wears No. 5. Instead of black and gold, though, he’s now in red and white. He still hopes to make it to the NFL, and certainly showed flashes at Iowa that he’s good enough to get there. He has two seasons of eligibility left.
And it starts again where it all began for Rugamba.
“We’re going to fight until the last seconds and if we do end up on top, of course it would be a good feeling. The guys around here understand that I’ve got friends at Iowa,” Rugamba said. “If we get a ‘W’ it will be a huge thing for the team most importantly, but just a slight win for me.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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