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How Jacob Manu went from under-recruited prospect to heart of Arizona’s young defense

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In his pursuit of Tetairoa McMillan and other standout offensive players at Anaheim’s Servite High School, Jedd Fisch had quite a few conversations with those prospects about how they important they would be to Arizona’s rebuild.

There was another topic that kept coming up in their talks: Jacob Manu.

“Every time I talked to T-Mac and Noah (Fifita) and Keyan (Burnett) they kept saying ‘hey now, we got a linebacker here, we got a linebacker here,’” Fisch recalled Friday after Arizona’s Territorial Cup win over ASU, a victory sealed by a pair of big plays in the fourth quarter by one of the more unheralded members of the UA’s stellar 2022 recruiting class. “And then I went and watched him play.”

Manu, whom Arizona lists at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds but who is probably really 5-9 and under two bills, made his seventh start to wrap up his true freshman season by recording seven tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. He hit ASU quarterback Trenton Bourguet right before Jalen Harris stripped the ball away with 3:17 left, then he hit Bourguet’s arm on the pass that Isaiah Taylor dove to intercept two minutes later.

“He’s relentless,” Fisch said of Manu, whose only other scholarship offers were from Dartmouth and Penn. Those came in April 2021, while his offer from Arizona came last October, when Fisch went to a Servite game, a 56-12 win over Orange Lutheran that featured Fifita throwing for 403 yards and five touchdowns on 19-of-21 passing, McMillan catching nine passes for 218 yards and four TDs (and a one-handed interception) and Burnett catching a 31-yard TD pass.

None of those achievements surprised Fisch. The same couldn’t be said for what Manu did.

“He made like 10 or 11 tackles in their backfield,” Fisch said. “He caused a fumble, had an interception. And then I just offered him. I offered him that night.”

Unable to talk to him at the game, per NCAA rules, Fisch said he called Manu.

“I got on the phone with him I said ‘hey, you want to be Wildcat, man?’ I said I’m trumping our staff on this one. I’m not checking with anyone. I’ve seen you play and we want you to be a Wildcat. And it was awesome that he agreed to it.”

Manu joined Burnett, Fifita and McMillan in signing with Arizona in December, but because the Wildcats didn’t show interest until midway through his senior season he wasn’t on track to graduate early like his teammates. That meant he wouldn’t be able to join the team until the summer, missing out on valuable spring practices.

As a result, Manu was on the defensive scout team to start the season. But that didn’t last long.

“Jayden (de Laura) would say like, hey, tell 59 to slow down,” Fisch said. “Like, we’re trying to get looks on our scout team and he’s ... just making incredible plays. We ended up sending him down (to the second-team defense) I think Week 2, and then he started (a week later) against North Dakota State.”

Manu was the third linebacker in a 4-3 front for that game, registering four tackles. Arizona went back to a 4-2-5 defense the following game, but by mid-October Manu had supplanted Kolbe Cage as starter and he had 10 tackles with 2.5 for loss against Washington.

He had another 10 in the upset win at UCLA, finishing the season with the 7th-most snaps on defense including 88 of 89 against ASU.

“He worked his butt off, and he started off scout team,” linebacker Jerry Roberts said. “Coach )Johnny) Nansen gave him a shot ... and he’s just a dog.”

Arizona’s defense, as a whole, was quite bad this year. The Wildcats allowed 36.5 points per game, most in a non-COVID season since 2016, and more than 500 yards on five occasions. That side of the ball figures to look drastically different in 2023 from a personnel standpoint, with at least four starters out of eligibility and several others possibly leaving.

The recruiting class that’s expected to sign next month is heavy on defensive players, and the Wildcats figure to go hard after linebackers (among other positions) in the NCAA transfer portal. But it would be a surprise not to see Manu out there in the middle again when Arizona next plays Sept. 2 against NAU.