Donovan Manuel: Path To The NFL Draft
By Simon Carroll
Perseverance is a quality that, for most of us, too often proves elusive. It takes a certain kind of mindset to continuously battle against adversity, or circumstances out of your control. For Donovan Manuel, his love for football gave him the strength and conviction to fight through setbacks and perception – and prove to himself and everyone else that he was built for this game. The FIU linebacker sits down with Simon Carroll to discuss his path to the NFL Draft.
Early Football Memories
They say football is a business. And for draft prospects preparing for the biggest job interviews of their lives over the next three months, it might be hard for some of them to remember why they embarked on this journey to begin with. Not so for Donovan Manuel, who’s love for the game remains as strong now as it was as a child back in Ellenwood, Georgia – even if the journey to linebacker was a little convoluted:
“I started playing football when I was five. I fell in love with the game immediately – the first position I played was center! I grew up with coaches who said you had to learn how to block before you could run the football. But eventually, I ended up at running back and linebacker – all the way through park ball, middle school and high school. When I was younger, I wanted to be the star running back! But by the time I got to my senior year, I decided I much preferred doing the hitting than being hit. So that final year, I was a fully fledged linebacker.”
A real athlete, Manuel was involved with as many sports as possible. In other to concentrate on football though, sacrifices had to be made – and one other pastime was particularly hard to give up:
“One of my first loves was actually baseball – I played a lot of it growing up. Eventually I had to choose one, and baseball was hard to give up. But if you really wanna do something, you gotta put your all into it. And I really wanted to get a scholarship playing sports.”
Born and raised in SEC heartland, football was always going to be difficult for Manuel to ignore. But it might surprise you to learn that, despite firmly living in Bulldog country, Donovan’s passion for college ball originally emanated from Eugene, Oregon:
“Growing up, watching college football, I knew it was my dream to be on that stage – to play ball at the Division 1 level. My favorite team was Oregon because of the uniforms! Back when they had LaMichael James, D’Anthony Thomas and all those boys. But ever since then, it’s what I’ve strived to achieve. Watching Georgia in the SEC as a kid, I knew I needed to be a part of it.”
Such was Manuel’s passion for football, he only ever took it for granted once. Some serious parenting skills made sure that the linebacker understood the family priorities – and he never made the same mistake again:
“Not a lot of people thought I could do it. In fact, my parents pulled me off the football in the ninth grade because I was messing around in the classroom. Not doing what I was supposed to be doing. So they were making an example. I remember like it was yesterday – riding that bus home and I just cried. I felt like I shouldn’t be there – I should be on the field. My dad made me go watch every game from the stands whilst I was off the team too! It didn’t take me long at all to get back in my parents’ good books – I wasn’t going to lose football again.”
With Donovan’s commitment to football absolute, and his transition to linebacker complete, he began to show what he could do at Stockbridge High School. His final year with the Tigers, Manuel was named Region 4-AAAAA Defensive Player of the Year and earned first team all-state honors from both the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Recruit Georgia. That 2017 season – his first at his new position – he amassed 88 tackles, six tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Despite the accolades, Manuel received just two scholarship offers from FCS teams – something he believes was an unfortunate result of his late transition from offense to defense:
“Recruiting wasn’t particularly kind to me. I put it down to really just starting one season as a true linebacker. I had a little bit of film at linebacker, but I was getting more recruiting interest early in the process as a running back. But obviously, those schools stopped talking to me after I switched position. I think I was a late bloomer – my real offers only came after my senior season, between December and January. I took two official visits, to East Tennessee State and Kennesaw State. A big factor was my desire to grow up and become a man, and how it would be beneficial to go a little further afield – Kennesaw State was just an hour away, but my father encouraged me to get away from home, ETSU was my first official offer, and after the visit I just kinda took it and ran with it – and looking back, I’m glad I did. Who knows where I would be right now if I hadn’t gone to East Tennessee State.”
Manuel seems quite philosophical about his recruiting experience. He understood the situation he found himself in, and made the most of it – but never mentally accepted that this was his final destiny as a college football player:
“The two offers? I was thankful for them, but it left me kinda hungry too. I always wanted to play at the FBS level, so I went into college with a real big chip on my shoulder. I was going to show everyone I had been overlooked. And I came in feeling like I was ready to play as a true freshman! But I ended up redshirting – I played in four games, and I did have an All-American linebacker in front of me. In the end, I’m super grateful to my coaches at ETSU for having a plan for me and putting it in place. It helped me become the player that I am today.”
Much like with his recruiting, Donovan Manuel was forced to follow a script of someone else’s choosing to begin his time at East Tennessee State. And whilst he would undoubtedly have preferred to be on the field rather than the sidelines, he was ultimately grateful for the plan that the Buccaneers’ coaching staff had in place for him:
“It was a blessing – but I was pissed off at the same time! I was one of the guys who was able to travel; some of my classmates who I came in with, they’re going home at the weekend to see their families. Me, I was with the team on Saturday knowing I wasn’t going to play. But it was a good experience, and I’m happy I went through it. It made me a better person, and gave me a feel for the game earlier than a lot of the others.”
Manuel got a feel for the game alright. If he hit the ground running moving to linebacker at high school, then he positively exploded onto the scene at ETSU. In three years playing in Johnson City, Donovan racked up 233 tackles, 21 TFL’s and 6.5 sacks. He also routinely invaded other stats columns too – making his mark with QB hurries, forced fumbles, even pass breakups. As far as developing a complete game at the position, trusting the process early in his college career had paid dividends.
Throughout this personal development, ETSU was evolving as a team too. Under Coach Randy Sanders, the Bucs went from three wins in 2019 (Donovan’s first year playing) to eleven in 2021. In every aspect, Manuel had achieved as much as he could have hoped for – and it was time to challenge himself on a new stage – one he believed he was destined for all along:
“I did everything I needed to do at that level. I showed I could play at that standard. And especially going from a 3-9 season, not being able to buy a win – we had seven losses that were one-score games. We just couldn’t get it done! But then by 2021, we had turned that thing round, went to the playoffs, and showed what we’re about. Just me growing over time, coming from a redshirt freshman to an impactful junior, I felt like it was mission complete at East Tennessee State. It was bittersweet when I left; all the people I came in with, started this journey with – I’d built relationships with a lot of important people in my life. It was hard leaving them. Of course I was ready for the next chapter, but I still miss those times to this day.”
Instant Fit In Florida
Ready to take the next step, Donovan Manuel began to explore his options. This time, it was a different set of circumstances that reduced his possibilities – but at least it was interest from the FBS level that was coming his way:
“I had a couple of other schools interested in me when I hit the portal. But I had a shorter time frame to decide compared to most guys – the FCS playoffs cut into that portal time. So by the time I could jump into the portal it was late in the process, and I had just enough time to take one official visit – and that was FIU. That was my first FBS offer as well, which hit home with me – I felt they believed in me.”
I asked Manuel what it was about beautiful, sunny Miami that attracted him to Florida International? Considering his penchant for the vibrant Oregon uniforms, I thought maybe the ‘Miami Vice’ jerseys the Panthers rocked on special occasions could have been a factor. Instead, it felt a lot more like fate that led Donovan to Westchester:
“It’s funny; earlier that season I was in a car with some of my ETSU teammates, and they asked me ‘where would you want to play if you could?’. And I said Florida! Now I’m a big faith guy, a big believer in Jesus Christ, and it felt a little bit like he was leading me there. A couple of other schools in Florida, USF and Miami reached out too – but the visit to FIU was amazing. Coach Mac [Mike MacIntyre] had just got here, had a couple of staff with him, but no defensive coordinator there yet. So it was another leap of faith to some extent! But Coach Mac was a defensive-minded coach, and I had played in a system similar to his previously. That’s what led me here – and I gotta say, looking back, I couldn’t have made a better decision.”
Different location, same story: As it was at Stockbridge and ETSU, so it was at FIU. Manuel took zero time acclimating to the FBS, becoming an instant starter and recording 97 tackles, 8.5 TFL’s, a sack and a fumble recovery. By this stage, from an outside perspective it feels like Donovan’s journey to bonafide college football linebacker was written in the stars. Manuel prefers to pinpoint specific reasons for his success:
“Personally, I feel like the game of football doesn’t change, no matter the level. It might get a little more competitive, a little more complex, but I try to keep it as simple as I can. What helped me a lot was an improvement in preparation; I learned how to watch film better. Sounds silly, but previously I watched a lot of film but didn’t really know HOW to, what exactly I was looking for. How to break it down, different tendencies, what to key in on etc. That really took my game to another level. But if you ask me, it could have been better. I didn’t hit 100 tackles, and that really irritates me! 100 was always my target, and I didn’t quite make it. But it was something to continue to strive for – I sure as hell got it the next year.”
Leadership & Sacrifice
121 tackles to be exact. Donovan Manuel somehow improved on his impressive first season at FIU, beating his numbers in every category in his final year. At this point, he’s an undisputed leader of the defense – the one role he was unsure he was capable of when he first got to FIU Stadium:
“When I first got here, they through that Captain role on me early. Now I’m trying to adjust coming from the FCS you know, and it’s kinda hard to command the respect of your teammates when they don’t really know you so well. I’d only got here in the spring, and I’m trying to prove to them, myself and my coaches that I can play and produce here. But Coach Mac and the staff, they saw something early in me that perhaps I didn’t see yet. They thought I had those leadership qualities – and it turns out I did! I appreciate them for that – giving me that role. And my teammates too, for accepting me in that role.”
At this stage, Manuel was leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of perfecting his craft. Another area he feels paid dividends was a change in diet that allowed Donovan to hone his physique:
“I had a conversation with my defensive coordinator at the end of the 2022 season. Towards the end of that year, I had gotten up to about 241, 242 pounds. And I had never played that big in my whole career. It was that good Miami food they were feeding me!. But Coach Dewitt, he said to me “you can be a good linebacker in this conference at 240lbs, but you could be a great player with a chance to play on Sunday’s if you can get down to 230. Now he didn’t have to tell me twice – I took that and ran with it. That offseason, I worked hard, got my body right, decreased my body fat right through fall camp. By Week 1, I was down to 229. I looked better, felt better. I was able to both hit and run now. They say I had a chance at the NFL? No way I wasn’t making that adjustment.”
Another sacrifice Manuel was prepared to make to pursue football to the fullest. But what was it he had to give up?
“Candy. My kryptonite! It was hard, man – that was my guilty pleasure. Before that conversation, I don’t think a day went by where I didn’t eat some kind of candy. I don’t know why I loved it so much – my Mom told me she did eat a lot of sweets when she was pregnant with me, so I blame her! But candy and juice – they both had to go.”
On & Off The Field Development
We finish off discussing the development of Donovan Manuel’s game by touching on an incredible FIVE forced fumbles in 2023 – another facet to an appealing skillset. Manuel praises the FIU coaches for drilling into him and his teammates the importance of big plays:
“That was a big focus. We practiced it every day – ball security for offense, takeaways for defense. Punching the ball out, getting your face on the football, it was always the goal. And in the NFL, who doesn’t want the ball back? I hit hard, and I zero in on that ball – and the stats show I can knock it loose and cause turnovers. I had eight in my career in total. That’s a big difference between me and the next guy – I’m going to give our offense those extra opportunities.”
Throughout the interview, Donovan has been keen to highlight the coaches who have helped him where he is today. After again praising them with regards to him forcing turnovers, I ask him who he thinks has had the biggest impact on his career to date:
“Man I have been blessed with having some great coaches. Both my DC’s – Coach [Billy] Turner at ETSU and Coach [Jovan] Dewitt at FIU, they’ve really helped me hone my game. The details they’ve helped me focus on; I like to think it’s a simple game, but they give you those little tools to help you get up that extra 5,10%. Randy Sanders, the head coach who gave me my first break – forever grateful for that opportunity. And Coach Mac – he allowed me to play FBS football, named me a captain, trusted me to produce – really it’s been a blessing working with them all.”
It’s obvious Manuel is incredibly proud for what he’s achieved in his football career – but also eternally grateful to those who gave him the opportunity to do so. And the gratitude doesn’t end there – instead, Donovan decided to offer opportunities to others:
“I’m a huge believer in giving back. I was a part of the student-athlete leadership committee here at FIU, and we helped set up different events as part of the community outreach program. Yeah, I got my degree which was amazing, played at a high level, but I definitely get a different kind of pride when I think about giving back to the people around me. One of the biggest things we did here was a toy drive, helping people with limited means at Christmas. That was special – I’m going to continue work like that no matter what my future holds.”
'Hit & Run Artist'
Donovan Manuel now embarks on the next journey, from college athlete to a professional one. As he gears up for the draft process, he runs me through his new regime – a sharp departure from what he’s used to:
I’m down in Suwanee Georgia at Zilla Training. My trainer, he’s a football and track guy, so obviously he helps me now in this process – running as fast as you can in the forty and all the drills. It was important I found a guy who could work with me on that. And I don’t mind admitting he’s got me out of my comfort zone with some things he has me doing! Instead of focusing on opponents, now I’m working against the clock. Get those numbers down, prove to the stopwatch wearers I can move. The weight room is gonna take care of itself – I’m gonna crush the 225.”
One look at Manuel’s film says he’s got the power to bench. Hitting 21 reps during the season, he’s confident of pushing 25 when the scouts head down to Westchester on March 18th for his pro day. After attending the Tropical Bowl and speaking to scouts despite being on the sidelines with a slight hamstring issue, he knows a few of them are keen to see him in action. Acknowledging there are question marks about him getting off blocks, he’s worked hard on being more consistent in that area – and only a camp invite will allow him to show his growth in that regard. But at pro day, he’s ready to dispel a different myth:
“Oh I can run all day. I know that when people think of me, they think big hitter. And that’s correct. But it doesn’t mean I can’t move. At my pro day, I want to do myself proud with my forty, be quick changing direction in the drills, and be smooth in and out of my breaks. And I can do it as long as you need me to.”
Donovan Manuel does not lack for confidence – a career racking up stats will do that for you. And when you look at the variety of ways he has impacted football games, it’s easy to see why he feels he can fit into any defense he comes across:
“I’ve mainly played in a 3-4 defense in my college career. But once I got to FIU things got a bit more fluid, in our subpackage a lot more – flitting between 3-4 and 4-3. That gave me more confidence that I can play in any defense out there. And check the tape – I can play in space! I’ve got a pretty good amount of snaps outside the box. I’ve guarded a slot receiver here and there – not too often as I told my coach! But I can do it. If I had to choose, my favorite would be a 4-3 scheme. I’m a hit and run artist. Give me that Mike linebacker role; play sideline to sideline, shoot those gaps and re-establish the line of scrimmage. I’m versatile enough for the modern game – but when it comes to the hitting, I bring an old school physicality to the meet.”
Pro Day, for a prospect like Donovan Manuel, represents everything from this point on in the process. Other prospects at bigger schools may command visits or combine invites, a luxury not bestowed on Manuel – so far. What that does allow, is a single focus on improving incrementally; systematically removing any reason for a team not to give him an opportunity – and to put that on display in one afternoon of testing.
After that, it’s a month-long wait until, once again, Donovan’s next destination is determined by someone else. This time, he’s in the same boat as every other prospect, facing a nervous wait over draft weekend. Manuel is going to make sure he has those who mean the most to him by his side for that life-defining 72 hours:
“I’ll be at home for draft weekend, spending it with my family. The ones who are super close to me, who have been there since day one and always had my back. Those that matter the most – I really don’t want too many people or outsiders trying to get in! I want to try and relax as much as possible, even though it’s a stressful time. You don’t know what’s going to happen – the future is kind of out of your hands that weekend. I can’t NOT watch it, it’s going to be on the TV all weekend, I can’t lie. So having my family around will keep me calm, keep me loose. And if my dreams come true, they get to share that moment with me”
Despite his workmanlike and philosophical approach to the process to date, the enormity of the moment is not lost on Manuel:
“I tell everyone who I speak to about draft weekend – I might cry if my name gets called. Just to know all the sacrifices I made, my parents made up to that point. It’s easy to forget when you’re a kid, that your parents gave up so much to allow you to play football. Money, time, traveling – they were letting me live out my dreams. All that work behind the scenes – it means a lot to me. Thinking about that, the whole process, it’s going to be emotional.”
The last time Donovan Manuel cried, it was because football had been taken away from him. The next time, it will be the exact opposite.
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.
A huge thank you to Donovan for taking the time to talk to us. Everyone at The Touchdown wishes him well in his future career.