The Iowa cornerback started three games as a true freshman after Greg Mabin hurt his foot during Michigan week.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Manny Rugamba shows all the signs of being Iowa’s next star cornerback.
Fearlessness. A knack for the football. An unshakeable belief in himself.
So why all the talk about the need for humility?
“He made some really big plays in a big game at critical times. Maybe as big a play as we've had in the season, quite frankly,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters on media day, referencing Rugamba’s crucial interception in a 14-13 victory over Michigan last season. “That's got to be good for him as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps thinking about getting better.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker on Rugamba’s breakout moment against the No. 3 Wolverines, when the then-freshman also made four tackles and broke up three passes after being pressed into service:
“He did some good things, don’t get me wrong. Some of them we looked back and said, ‘Boy, he was lucky,’” Parker said.
“You’ve got to make sure to keep him humble. … He’s done a good job of working hard and understanding that if you want to be great, you’ve got to keep on working. We’re not even close to being good yet.”
Rugamba has obviously heard his coaches’ message.
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“I don’t try to listen to the noise. Anything can happen between now and January. Anything can happen between now and Week 1,” he said. “So I just try to take everything one step at a time and try to humble myself.”
Cornerback can be one of the most humbling positions in sports, what with receivers constantly trying to sprint past you or leap over you, with quarterbacks looking to take advantage of any perceived weakness, constantly testing you.
Corners are often giving up size, but must have the mindset that they’ll never give up ground.
That’s where Rugamba — whatever the rhetoric coming out of the Hawkeyes’ training camp — has a chance to really shine this fall. The sophomore is poised to start at right corner for Iowa, and if you’re wondering whether he’s up for the challenge, consider what he’s already done.
“Manny is born for this moment. Manny is not going to be intimidated by the bright lights,” said Michael Stine, who coached Rugamba for three seasons at Naperville (Ill.) Central High School. “I know one of his goals, he would love to graduate in three years and try to go to the NFL early. I wouldn’t cut him short.
“He just has extreme confidence in himself and he’s also very well-prepared.”
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Rugamba has eight older siblings, so he’s had to learn not to get lost in the crowd. He was such a polished athlete at Naperville Central, with an enrollment of 3,000, that Stine installed him on the varsity as a sophomore. That rarely happens at a school with a rich football tradition and so many players to choose from, said Stine, in his 13th year as head coach after taking over from his father. Naperville Central routinely produces major-college talent, including former Hawkeye safety Sean Considine.
Rugamba concentrated on wide receiver in his varsity debut. In a state semifinal against Marist that year, it was Rugamba who made the game’s biggest plays. With Naperville Central trailing by two touchdowns, he twice kept drives alive with clutch fourth-down receptions. The Redhawks rallied to win. The next week, they won a state championship.
Rugamba called it his “coming-out game” as a high schooler. Last winter, he told Stine the Michigan game felt the same way.
Rugamba started playing cornerback as a junior in high school, but only situationally, in man-to-man coverage when his team needed a key stop.
“He has that lockdown corner mentality,” Stine said. “His mentality was, ‘Coach, put me on the other team’s best player. I’ll shut him down.’”
As a senior, Rugamba caught 112 passes for 1,615 yards. Equally amazing was that, playing sporadically on defense, he managed to record six interceptions with another eight passes broken up.
His college choices came down to Iowa, Iowa State, Indiana, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Illinois. Stine said most colleges saw Rugamba as a defensive player, even with limited film available. He stood out that much. Rugamba wavered between the Hawkeyes and his in-state school before ultimately heading west. His simple goal was to learn as much as he could from Iowa star Desmond King and to earn some playing time immediately.
Rugamba ended up starting three games after Greg Mabin got hurt. He intercepted his first pass in a 14-7 win at Minnesota. The Michigan game got him national attention. And expectations.
“He’s always finishing. He’s always competing to get the ball out. I think you saw it in the Michigan game,” Iowa safety Brandon Snyder said of Rugamba. “He never gives up on a play and I think that’s a characteristic that you can’t always teach.
"I think it’s something you’ve either got or you don’t. And that’s a huge compliment to call someone a finisher.”
Rugamba, extremely soft-spoken in his interaction with reporters, said he appreciated the praise. Then he quickly spoke about how much he’s learned from his teammates and coaches.
“If that’s what people are saying, I guess so,” Rugamba acknowledged. “I just try to play with confidence. … You have to have some type of confidence with you. And you can’t look back on certain plays if you mess up. You’ve always got to have the ‘go to the next play’ mentality.”
Rugamba has packed on 15 pounds, up to 190, to his 6-foot frame. It gives him needed muscle to accompany his moxie.
“The way I carry myself on the field is a little different,” he said. “I’m able to throw myself around a little bit more.”
Stine said Rugamba has always carried himself differently. The veteran coach has seen many of his players go on to the NFL, including recently retired tight end Owen Daniels and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate. But he said he’s never been sure that a former pupil would reach the pinnacle of the sport.
“If he stays healthy, he’s going to play in the NFL. He’s that guy that I feel that about,” Stine said of Rugamba.
“He told me this winter, ‘I’ve got to take over (at Iowa). They’re going to look at me as a leader next year.’ As a true freshman, that was his mindset. That’s what he’s done his whole life. It’s not out of his character. It’s who he is and that’s his DNA.”
Humbling words for Rugamba to live up to.