Minutes after Washington completed its third fall practice on Sunday, Kyler Manu stood on the field at Husky Stadium and rattled off the names of the linebackers who helped shape him.
There was Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, both gone now after starting for the Huskies last season. Before them, it was Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria. Sometimes, Manu can’t believe how how quickly his career has gone by, how fast he went from learning from the veterans to becoming one. Other times, it feels like forever ago that he first put on a UW uniform.
Manu, a redshirt senior, is now working through his final fall camp with arguably the best chance to start in his career. Throughout the spring and early fall, he’s been a staple at first-team inside linebacker alongside fellow senior Brandon Wellington.
“It’s exciting,” Manu said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Just all the hard work I’ve been putting in and just learning and growing is hopefully going to pay off.”
Other than Manu and Wellington, every inside linebacker on UW’s roster is a freshman or a redshirt freshman. Wellington has played in 35 games, Manu 24. The only other players who have seen time — redshirt freshmen Jackson Sirmon, MJ Tafisi and Edefuan Ulofoshio — have played in 10 games combined.
For three years, Manu waited for his chance. He played in three games as a redshirt freshmen, seven as a sophomore, then all 14 last season. But despite the sparse appearances early in his career, Manu said he never considered transferring.
“That never crossed my mind,” Manu said. “I committed here and I never wanted to leave. Coach (Chris Petersen) and the staff here are just amazing. … Even though I didn’t get a lot of playing time, I grew so much as a player off the field that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
Now his patience is on the verge of paying off. While Manu likely isn’t the most physically gifted of UW’s options at the position, his biggest strength is one only experience can create.
“Just being here for five years, I know the defense basically like the back of my hand,” Manu said. “I’ve taken pride in that and knowing every little detail of my job. I think that’s what I’ve excelled at so far.”
Petersen calls Manu’s experience “banked knowledge.” Even if all of his reps haven’t been meaningful, he’s gotten plenty of them over his five years in the program.
“He’s one of those seniors, whether he’s been a starter or not, those are the guys that need to make the jump,” Petersen said in the spring. “So Kyler has taken a nice step. It’s nice to see. I’m always looking for those seniors. The young guys? I know they’re going to get better. The seniors, can they take the next step? When that happens, good things will happen for them and for us.”
When Manu traces back his development, he always ends up in the same place. The process started with his work, sure, but it was accelerated through the careful guidance of the players above him.
That’s why, when Manu is considering the kind of leader he wants to be, he often thinks back to his beginning. Mistakes happened, Manu said, but he was never berated. Instead, the veterans remained patient. They took the time to explain, spending extra time on the field or initiating one-on-one sessions in the film room.
Now that they’re upperclassmen, Manu and Wellington are determined to continue that mindset.
“Just doing what they showed us,” Manu said, “just helping out the younger guys with anything they’re struggling at whether it’s off the field or on the field that they’re not scared to come to me and Welly to ask questions. That’s my goal for camp and the rest of the season, just to help these kids grow with knowledge and everything.”