Kyler Manu has waited 1,742 days for this moment.
Washington’s 6-foot-1, 245-pound linebacker last started in a competitive football game on Nov. 21, 2014, when his Highland High School Rams toppled the Mountain View Mavericks 56-21 to complete an undefeated 12-0 season and secure an Idaho state title. On the signature blue turf at Boise State’s Albertsons Stadium, he barreled through a hole in the offensive line to sack the opposing quarterback. He bolted towards the sideline to shove a wide receiver out of bounds. He showed why Washington was so invested in a relatively under-recruited 195-pound prospect from Pocatello.
But that was nearly five years and 50 pounds ago; it was 39 UW wins ago. In between, Manu appeared sparingly in 24 games across four seasons in Seattle. He watched Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria, Ben Burr-Kirven, Tevis Bartlett and D.J. Beavers surpass him on the depth chart. He worked, and he waited (and he waited, and he waited).
Now, the wait is almost over. On Saturday, the fifth-year senior will make his first career start.
“It means a lot,” Manu said on Tuesday, four days before the Huskies’ season-opener against Eastern Washington. “It’s my last season. I have seven games here in Husky Stadium left, and I’m just going to enjoy every single moment I have — every practice, every game, every meeting.”
It’s true: For Manu, those moments are numbered. If all goes well, he has 13, or 14, or maybe even 15 starts to show the world what it’s been missing. He has one full season to make the whole long wait worthwhile. He has an opportunity to prove he’s more than an anonymous name at the end of the roster.
He’s earned that opportunity. And now, it’s time to play.
“I’m excited for Kyler,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday. “He’s been here a long time. He’s the oldest guy on our team in terms of longevity, and it’s awesome to see how hard and long he’s battled, to finally get a really good opportunity to get major playing time and be a significant contributor.
“He’s contributed. That’s the one thing — over the years he’s been able to play a lot of football for us. But now it’s a different role for him. I think it’s great to see a guy who’s a fifth-year guy finally get his time to shine.”
But will he be a revelation, or a bridge to his successor? There are those that say that Manu essentially sat for four seasons for a reason; that Victor, Bierria, Burr-Kirven, Bartlett and Beavers should have passed the baton to someone else; that he’s only starting because Beavers medically retired this spring and inside-linebackers coach Bob Gregory was left with few other options; that redshirt freshman Jackson Sirmon will snag his spot by Week 3.
There are those that say that. But Manu doesn’t hear them.
“It’s basically just keeping my head down and grinding and not listening to the outside noise,” said Manu, who has contributed 12 tackles in his 24 career games. “I know there was probably a lot of hate going on (throughout my time here). But I was just true to the process, trusted coach Pete, trusted coach Gregory, and now my time’s paying off.”
Added defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake: “Now here’s a player who’s heard this defense (taught) over and over and over. He makes the adjustments. He started making plays this spring. It carried over into fall camp. So you’re seeing a player that’s really beginning to play like a senior.”
But can he play like Burr-Kirven, who led Washington with 176 tackles last season? Can he mirror a man who stacked up six pass breakups, 5.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and two sacks?
That’s obviously unlikely. But with Manu and fellow senior Brandon Wellington manning the middle, can UW — which has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense each of Manu’s four seasons — continue to reach Lake’s lofty standard?
“We’ve always lost guys over the years, and our defense always just reloads. There’s really no drop-off,” Manu said. “So that’s the expectation going into Saturday, that we’re going to be an elite defense stopping the run — the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12. That has always been our mindset, and that will never change.”
The only thing that changes is the lineup. You’ll see Manu play inside Husky Stadium on Saturday, and that’s not something that could always be said during those 1,742 days. He waited, and he didn’t have to. He could have transferred to a tiny school and cut to the front of the line.
“No, that never crossed my mind,” he said. “I told myself that I was committed here and I never wanted to go anywhere else. I felt like if I were to leave it would be like I’m quitting on myself.
“I just wanted to stick through it. The overall opportunity I have here at Washington, with networking, connections and Seattle constantly growing, I just wanted to stick it out and enjoy my time here.”
He might enjoy Saturday most of all. And if he helps the Huskies win, it’ll be worth the wait.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” he said. “I’ve had my highs, had my lows. But I’m really happy I stuck it out.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s no other place like Washington, where you can have this experience with these fans, coach Pete and just our teammates we have in that locker room. It’s been awesome over these last five years.”