LOS ANGELES--Somehow, some way, Steven Manfro will make a believer out of those who doubt him.
One visit to UCLA's spring practice ought to do the trick.
Manfro, a freshman running back for the Bruins, seems to have a permanent spot on the "guys who are overlooked" list, but he's making people pay attention to him with his performances over the past couple of weeks at Spaulding Field.
The shifty, quick scat back regularly draws oohs and aahs from the fans assembled in the crowd and leaves defenders grasping at air with an array of open field moves and stop-on-a-dime cuts. He's fast enough to out-race defenders down the sideline and has earned the nickname "White Mamba" -- a spinoff of Oregon running back DeAnthony Thomas' "Black Mamba" moniker -- because of his similar play-making ability.
"Every day I’m kind of looking at him and saying 'What is he going to do today?' " coach Jim Mora said. "And he doesn’t disappoint."
Not bad for a kid who received little attention from recruiters while at Valencia High School for reasons no one can quite explain. He received only two scholarship offers, one from Wyoming and one from UCLA, despite setting 27 school records and earning CIF Southern Section Northern Division player of the year honors.
Manfro rushed for 2,553 yards and 29 touchdowns his senior season and once ran for 420 yards in one game to set a Foothill League record, yet heard mostly crickets when it came time for scholarship offers.
"I’m not really sure why," Manfro said. "I really don’t know."
Some say his size was a detractor, but at 5 feet 10, 190 pounds his size isn't all that unusual for a college running back.
"I don’t really understand most of those because I’m the same size as most of the running backs," he said. "I don't think I’m that below average in size."
Others say his high school jukes and cuts wouldn't translate well when faced against college players, but he's showing in camp that he is, indeed, an effective runner at this level. Manfro laughs off all the doubters and uses them as motivation.
"I’m trying to prove to people that I could play on this level," he said. "Whoever doubted me, I am a D-1 player and I can show them."
He has shown quite a few of his defensive teammates already. Manfro's first-step quickness gets him through the hole in a hurry and his video-game like moves have made many a defender miss in the open field. When it comes time to collide, he has shown he has enough power to plow though a linebacker or safety.
He has found the end zone on long runs about a dozen times and his evasiveness has caught his teammates off guard.
"We knew in the weight room over the winter that he was strong and one of the fastest testers, but I don’t think anyone thought he would have this good of a spring ball," linebacker Patrick Larimore said. "He’s opening a lot of eyes."
Running backs coach Steve Broussard, one of the top recruiters at Arizona State the past couple of years, said he caught wind of Manfro after Manfro had already committed to UCLA. He didn't know what to expect from the freshman because of all the stories touting him as overrated, but once he laid eyes on Manfro on the practice field, Broussard said that if anything, Manfro is underrated.
"Looking at the things that he’s doing out here, you would think he would have had more offers," Broussard said. "But sometimes kids get missed and somebody this special is somebody’s diamond. I’m glad I’m here and I get to coach him."
Manfro got caught in a logjam at running back last season with Johnathan Franklin, Derrick Coleman, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James all ahead of him, so it only made sense for him to redshirt. Franklin, Jones and James are still on the team, but with the new offense, the running backs figure to get used a lot more often and Manfro's skill set seems perfect for offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's philosophy of getting the ball to playmakers in space.
Swing passes and running backs lined up in the slot are key elements of the offense that should help Manfro thrive. He's also trying out at punt returner and kick returner and has been equally impressive there.
"He’s got speed, he’s got quickness, he’s got explosiveness, he’s elusive, he can anticipate where guys are in space and maneuver his body," Mora said. "He just seems to be internally driven to be an outstanding player and therefore every day he comes out here and he just does something really impressive."
And the more he does so, the more he has gained the attention of the defense. Linebackers, linemen and safeties are always talking to Manfro after he leaves trails of them in his wake. Coaches are also getting in on the act after watching Manfro shred their schemes in the film room.
"All the defensive coaches are always giving me stuff," Manfro said. "They’re saying 'the White Mamba ain’t got nothing on me.' "
Looks like the White Mamba still has some convincing to do.