MOSCOW, Idaho – His high school coach likened him to Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, which makes sense given Ma’ne Manaea’s free-flowing black hair and exuberance roaming the defensive backfield.
Yet Idaho football fans might be reminded of another tenacious safety when watching the 5-foot-11 Manaea – one of the jewels of the Vandals’ recruiting class that was announced Wednesday.
“Similar to Shiloh (Keo)?” UI coach Robb Akey said. “Physicality, yes. And he might even have a little more suddenness to him.”
Here’s another reason to compare Keo and Manaea: Both signed with Idaho after accomplished prep careers in western Washington.
The Vandals, with a diminished recruiting pipeline in Texas, scoured the Northwest and ended up with six players from Idaho and Washington in their 23-man class. That includes Manaea, Jayshawn Jordan – another Seattle-area defensive back – and Coeur d’Alene High products Chad Chalich and Deon Watson.
Chalich and Watson helped the Vikings win back-to-back 5A state championships, and they orally committed to Idaho weeks ago – a sign to Akey that his program is well-received by coaches and players most familiar with UI.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am that the best of Idaho has elected to stay and represent Idaho,” Akey said. “I think that’s a great thing.”
The Vandals also signed Eagle High place-kicker Jace Johnson and Issaquah tight end Eric Lemke, to go along with seven junior college players who Akey hopes will have an impact next year.
But securing Chalich – a 6-foot quarterback who was the two-time 5A State Player of the Year – and Watson were clearly two of UI’s main priorities during the recruiting process.
Coeur d’Alene coach Shawn Amos said he was told Akey’s first scholarship offer went to Watson, a 6-3 two-sport standout who will play H-back or defensive end at UI. And Chalich pledged his commitment before the Vandals’ 2-10 season was complete.
“It’s obviously very exciting for those guys and for our program to see them go play at the next level,” Amos said. “And I think it adds a little bit that they’re going together and going to Idaho.”
Amos and Dave Miller – Manaea’s coach at Lakes High in Lakewood, Wash. – said Idaho has traditionally done a good job tracking Northwest talent. This year, it just so happened that there were more capable FBS-level players, particularly in Idaho, who were interested in UI.
“I think they’ve had good inroads here,” Miller said. “I know (Akey) went to some games, some camps and stuff. Idaho has always done a good job recruiting our guys, and it just happened to be a really good fit for both (Manaea and UI).”
Manaea originally committed to Colorado before it asked him to discuss grayshirting. He played slot receiver, safety and returned punts this year, while starting at outside linebacker at Lakes as a sophomore.
Two of Manaea’s teammates, Zach Banner (USC) and Cedric Dozier (Cal), signed with Pac-12 programs. But Miller said Manaea was “in the conversation of maybe just being the best pure football player we’ve ever had, from a football player’s standpoint.”
Akey is also excited about the prospects of Trae Armstrong from Glendale, Ariz., a 5-7 tailback with elite track speed who could contribute as a true freshman. The coach also expects two JC offensive linemen – 380-pound Semisi Tupou and Nicklaus Von Rotz – to factor into the rotation in 2012.
Fellow JC signees Matthew Willis and Elijah Sala, both linebackers, and receivers Najee Lovett and Kyren Watts will also have a chance to fill roles left by departed players, Akey said.