During countless phone calls before and after the NFL draft, linebackers coach Mark Duffner thought University of Michigan linebacker Roy Manning expressed certain intangibles.
"I liked what I heard. I got a feel for him," Duffner said. "This was a very anxious guy, a guy that appeared to be very bright. That coupled with what I saw, it looked he was going to be a real good candidate for us."
Those traits along with the speed, size and range that Duffner saw on tape are why Manning not only received an invitation to minicamp but earned a starting spot on the Green Bay Packers.
Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga, a fourth round selection in the 2005 draft, knows the uphill journey every undrafted rookie faces. No NFL team drafted his older brother, Casey, who played tight end at Utah State. Casey went through brief stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year the Seahawks cut him after training camp, the Chiefs signed him to their practice squad for one week and the Eagles signed him to their practice squad for the last four to five weeks of the season. He abandoned his NFL dreams this past year.
Casey's route is more typical of what happens to undrafted rookie free agents.
"When you're a free agent, they bring you in and don't have anything invested in you," Brady Poppinga said. "They're just hoping one of those guys turns into something."
Manning turned into something, first showing glimpses during the April minicamp and the organized team activities in June. Despite a hulking, 6-2, 245 frame, Manning showed good range, pursuit and change-of-direction skills. A play would start away from him, and he showed a knack for chasing it down.
"He looked like he understood how to use his body to his advantage," Duffner said. "We got pretty excited about him during the minicamp, but a lot of guys look pretty good in shorts."
Manning, however, continued to display those same skills during training camp along with versatility and a quick mastery of multiple defensive positions. The Packers played him at middle, weakside and strongside linebacker.
"He picked up the scheme really fast," Poppinga said. "He's very smart."
Manning said he most likes playing on the weakside where he does not have to cover a tight end but remains flexible.
"I'm a rover," Manning said. "Wherever coaches feel like putting me, I'll play."
The coaches put him at weakside linebacker for the first three regular season games of the season where he played for Robert Thomas on passing downs. When Na'il Diggs injured his knee on Oct 3., Manning earned his first start at the strongside on Oct. 9 against the New Orleans Saints. He recorded four tackles.
"There's no other rookie on our team that played three different positions and has played them not only in preseason games but in regular-season games," Duffner said. "That's been a lot for a young player."
Despite how quickly he earned playing time, Manning still faces challenges. He often commiserates with Poppinga, his roommate during road games, on the growing pains facing a rookie. Like the old football cliché, the game seems much faster in the NFL than in college. An avocation has turned into a hobby. At Michigan he went to class in the mornings and practice in the afternoons. The NFL has become a full-time job with around-the-clock meetings, practices, film reviews, treatments and conditioning sessions. The day has a different rhythm, and each meeting features a new set of plays.
"There are so many more calls," Manning said. "The terminology is totally different from what you learned in college."
Manning's college career lacked the high-profile status of most NFL starting linebackers. He redshirted his first season and did not start a game until his fifth season. After his second year he seemed poised to make a jump, but he tore cartilage in his knee in the first game of the 2002 season and would miss the rest of the season.
Competing for starting spots among a talented linebacking corps at Michigan made it difficult to find playing time.
"At Michigan you're not playing against run of the mill guys," Manning said. "You're playing against the best guys in the country."
Packers rookie guard William Whitticker, who attended Michigan State, played against Manning as part of their annual Big Ten rivalry. Even though Manning was not the most well-known linebacker, he still appeared prominently in the opposing teams' scouting reports.
"He's a hard worker," read the Michigan State scouting report. "He will get after it."
But it wasn't until Manning's senior season that he turned it around, starting 10 games, posting 39 tackles and forcing three fumbles in 2004. His performance earned him the Roger Zatkoff Award, signifying the Wolverines' top linebacker.
Manning credits Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr's heart-to-heart meetings for helping him reach his mental and physical potential.
"My coach had a lot to do with that ... I thank him to this day," Manning said. "Truthfully I don't think I was playing at my highest level either."
Because Manning did not burst on the scene until his senior year, he fell off the radar of most NFL teams. The teams and BLESTO scouts often compile their rankings based on junior year performances.
"If I had started my junior and senior season," Manning said. "I would have had a better chance at getting drafted and going to the combine, getting in some of the all-star games."
Although no team drafted him, several expressed interest in signing him as an undrafted free agent. The Eagles, Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers each wanted to bring Manning aboard, but he chose the Packers because of Duffner. Houston Texans linebacker Shantee Orr, a former teammate of Manning's at Michigan, played for the Packers during training camp in 2003. He praised Duffner's teaching ability and high-energy style.
"Some close friends of mine told me he was a real good coach," Manning said. "Those things matter to me."
Manning signed as undrafted free agent with the Packers on April 29 and received his shot in the NFL -- albeit a long one. Manning, however, focused on strapping on his helmet and shoulder pads rather than the daunting challenge he faced to make the roster.
"I really didn't think that far ahead," he said. "I was just excited about the signing."
He has come along way since those days but needs to lower his pad level and continue to use his large frame to his advantage. During his first start, he overpursued a play, allowing Saints tight end Ernie Conwell to break open before safety Mark Roman forced an incompletion.
"I have so many things to improve on. That's why I'm excited about the length of the season," he said. "I can't do anything but get better each week."
That desire to work hard and become better is what Duffner heard on the telephone and noticed on film, and it's why he invited him to the team's first minicamp, setting up Manning's improbable rise from a linebacker no one wanted to draft to an NFL starter. But to Manning that seems like the distant past.
"I don't think of myself as an undrafted free agent," Manning said. "I'm here now. All that stuff is behind me."