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Emerging star still has promise to keep

Manning awaits NFL draft but vows to finish OSU degree

CORVALLIS Ñ He arrived on campus unsung and largely unrecruited, a good player off of a great high school team, without guarantee of a position or a starting job.

Eric Manning leaves Oregon State as an All-Pacific-10 Conference defensive tackle, a key piece in a program that has been to three bowl games in his four years, and an East-West All-Star game participant with an NFL future.

And he leaves 45 units short of a degree.

The last credential is important, he will have you know. Of nine offspring to Otis and Dorothy Manning, Eric is the first to go to college. And the Compton, Calif., native will be the first to graduate, he says.

'I want to get that degree for my Mom, to make her happy and proud of me,' Manning says. 'I am going to get it. I promised her that.'

The diploma will have to wait, though. Manning will leave Corvallis after fall term to train and prepare for the NFL draft in April. Experts expect him to go in the middle rounds, but you never know.

'A lot of great players out of Oregon State didn't get drafted,' Manning says. 'Ken Simonton didn't. LaDairis Jackson didn't. I just hope I get the opportunity to show I have the tools to make it.'

Michael Gray figures that Manning will. Oregon State's sixth-year defensive line coach played nine years in the Canadian Football League and coached in 1996 with the St. Louis Rams, where he worked with defensive tackle DeMarco Farr, among others.

'Eric is the most talented guy I have had at Oregon State,' Gray says. 'He will have a successful NFL career if he works at it. The next level is a job. It's not a scholarship anymore. You have to go out and produce. He thought this was demanding; it's going to be even more demanding. But he has the physical skills to get it done.'

The 6-1, 300-pound Manning came to OSU as a 255-pound offensive lineman who wanted to play linebacker. Coach Mike Riley, the only one to offer him a scholarship, saw something in Manning, and vice versa.

'I liked Mike Riley, and my family liked Mike Riley,' Manning says. 'That is what attracted me to Oregon State.'

Manning didn't pass his SATs out of high school, so he didn't enroll at OSU until the spring of 1999. By then, Dennis Erickson had taken over for Riley, and the new head man learned quickly that he had a gem in Manning.

A three-year starter and a stalwart on Oregon State's 2001 Fiesta Bowl championship team, Manning is an unusual blend of strength and quickness.

'For me, I think quickness is the biggest key,' he says. 'You have to get off the ball and get off blocks to make plays. That's what I'm good at Ñ getting off blocks and making plays in the backfield. I like to disrupt things, cause some havoc.

'But you have to be strong, too. I have seen a lot of double-teams the years I have been here. You have to be strong in the legs. I'm short, but I have my base in my legs.'

A lot of times, Manning and fellow tackle Dwan Edwards do the dirty work, taking care of blockers to open lanes for ends Noah Happe and Bill Swancutt and linebackers Richard Seigler and Nick Barnett.

'It's a team sport,' Manning says. 'As long as we are winning games and the other guys are making plays, I'm happy.'

If the fans sometimes don't notice Manning's efforts, his teammates do.

'When you play with a guy like Eric, you know,' Barnett says. 'He is a force to be reckoned with in the trenches. I really appreciated having those two tackles the last two years.'

Manning made his share of big plays this season, especially after the Pac-10 schedule began.

'After the nonconference games were over, Eric really picked up his play,' Gray says. 'I told him, 'If you are thinking about going to the next level, you have to be an impact player.' He has done that and had a consistent, sound year.'

Manning has to pinch himself when he thinks how things have worked out for him in Corvallis.

'I'm happy to be a small part of the history of rebuilding the program at Oregon State,' he says. 'Coming from Compton, I always wanted to play at USC or UCLA. Now, I wouldn't change it for the world. If I could start over, I'd go no place but Oregon State.

'I have really enjoyed it here. Small town, stay out of trouble, get your homework done, good (football) program, take care of your family in a nice environment.'

The family includes girlfriend Christina Heard and their 4-year-old son, Eric Jr., who have lived in Corvallis with Eric the past couple of years. He says fatherhood has made him grow up quickly. It also has made him appreciate even more his parents Ñ Otis, who owns a trucking company, and Dorothy, a minister.

'A lot of kids don't have both parents in their household like we did,' Manning says. 'They have been perfect role models. Dad worked his butt off in his trucking business to provide for the family. I have always wanted to be just like him.'

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