UBC OL Giovanni Manu hoping to shine light on U Sports as first NFL draft pick since 2016

Courtesy: Bob Frid/UBC Athletics

A U Sports player is expected to be taken in the NFL draft for the first time in almost a decade and Giovanni Manu is hoping it will help pave the way for more Canadian collegiate players in the future.

“I hope I make the U Sports community and other fellow football Canadians in U Sports happy and proud,” Manu told 3DownNation on Friday. “I hope I’m shining a light towards U Sports so that NFL people know that there’s potential within U Sports. I hope they take U Sports more seriously and hope they come up here every year because there truly is other talent out there besides us here at UBC.”

The last U Sports player to be selected in the NFL draft was David Onyemata, who was taken in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints back in 2016. The University of Manitoba product played seven seasons with the club before signing a three-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons worth $35 million in 2023.

The six-foot-four, 300-pound defensive tackle has dressed for 120 career NFL games with 82 starts and made 294 total tackles, 34 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, nine pass knockdowns, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and one interception. Clearly, he should have been drafted even higher.

Manu isn’t the only U Sports player who could be selected in this year’s NFL draft as his UBC teammate and fellow offensive lineman Theo Benedet is also hoping to hear his named called before the draft comes to an end on Saturday.

“During the season, me and him get together off the field and just talk about different types of edge rushers we’re facing on the week, what type of counter moves we can use against them,” said Manu. “We just feed off each other’s football brain and it’s great to have a teammate like that.”

The pair showcased their talents at UBC’s recent pro day, which was attended by representatives from 16 NFL teams and six CFL teams. Manu measured in at six-foot-seven and 352 pounds and ran a 5.03-second forty-yard, 8.29-second three-cone, and 4.81-second short shuttle. He also recorded 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, leaped 33.5 inches in the vertical jump, and 107 inches in the broad jump.

The performance drew rave reviews from scouts and led to Manu completing 11 predraft visits with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Denver Broncos. He has also spoken to the Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, and Minnesota Vikings via videoconference.

Manu credited strength and conditioning coach Joe McCullum for helping him test so well athletically and is extremely thankful for offensive line coach Dan Dorazio, who spent 21 years in the CFL prior to joining the Thunderbirds in 2023, for helping him grow as a blocker this past season.

“(Dorazio) is a father figure to me, he’s a great mentor. In terms of taking my game to the next level, he’s really specific and detailed with the way he coaches,” said Manu.

“He’s shown me different ways to ID different types of fronts and how to key defenders. When you watch film, he’s told me, ‘Watch and see what type of moves that defender favours in pass rush and what moves does he use to withstand run blocking.’ In the one season I’ve spent with him, he’s changed my game tremendously.”

The NFL has been on Manu’s radar since he committed to the University of British Columbia in 2019 out of Pitt Meadows Secondary School, which is located 35 kilometres east of Vancouver. The Thunderbirds went 2-6 during Manu’s first season on campus, though they gradually improved to finish atop Canada West this past season before losing the Vanier Cup to the Université de Montreal Carabins by a score of 16-9.

“I remember our first training camp, (head) coach (Blake) Knill pulled myself and Theo aside and told the both of us, ‘If you guys take this seriously for the next four to five years, you two could be the next big thing to come out of U Sports and I’m talking drafted into the NFL,'” said Mani.

“To hear that from a head coach like Blake Knill, a guy that’s truly experienced in this game, that’s when I kinda realized, ‘OK, if I lock into training and strength and conditioning for the next four or five years here at UBC, I could really make this a reality in the NFL.'”

Manu is represented by veteran NFL agent Zeke Sandhu, whose other clients include Odell Beckham Jr., Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Isaiah Hodgins, and Danielle Hunter. Sandhu has told Manu that he will likely be selected in round four or round five on Saturday.

The big-bodied blocker isn’t just representing U Sports as he pursues the NFL but also his home country of Tonga, where he lived until age 11. He and his two older siblings moved to B.C. to live with an aunt and his parents remained in Tonga, where they still reside. Manu has only seen his mother and father once or twice per year since, though they interact regularly via telephone and videoconference.

“I represent my Tongan people, my Polynesian people. I’m extremely proud to be Tongan but I’m also happy to be a Canadian. Canada accepted me coming here and I have found great friends here, great mentors in this country, but ultimately I represent Tonga. That’s where I was born and raised and that’s where I’m proud to be of.”

According to Pro Football Reference, there is only one active Tongan-born player in the NFL: offensive lineman Netane Muti. The 25-year-old was born in the capital city of Nuku’alofa and was selected in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, though he now plays for the Detroit Lions. Coincidentally, he was a college teammate of first overall 2023 CFL Draft pick Dontae Bull at Fresno State.

Between representing U Sports and two different countries, Manu already has a lot to play for. Soon, he will also represent an NFL team.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.