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Record-setting Manning stays motivated
LAKE FOREST – When El Toro quarterback Conner Manning found out Santa Margarita quarterback Johnny Stanton was out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he immediately reached out to him via Facebook.
"I felt really bad," Manning said. "He's a great kid and a great football player. I told him, 'You're one of the best football players around and you're going to have a heck of a career at Nebraska.' He said he really appreciated it and (to) keep it up this year."
The two seniors became friends during the offseason after working out together at quarterback camps and have supported each other since. When Stanton committed to Nebraska in the summer, Manning made sure to congratulate him. When Manning committed to Utah a week later, Stanton returned the well wishes.
Where the rivalry burns brightest is in Manning's mind. Manning wants you to say he is the best quarterback in the county. But he needs you to say it's Stanton.
A year ago it was Manning who eclipsed former Mater Dei quarterback Matt Barkley's single-season county record by throwing for 4,219 yards and 41 touchdowns. It was Manning who was selected the Register's 2011 offensive player of the year.
But it was Stanton who led his team to a CIF-SS Pac-5 Division title and state title, and it was Stanton who got more recruiting love and seemed to be the consensus choice as the county's top quarterback entering this season.
Manning, whose success last fall was accomplished while playing in the Southwest Division, remembers finding an article online this summer that posed the question: Is he for real?
"I stuck that on my wall," Manning said. "I wanted to prove to myself that I am and I'm going to go out there and play my heart out. I like to find a lot of little things to help motivate myself and become a better football player and help my team out the best I can."
THE LEGEND BEGINS
Manning first started playing flag football in fourth grade on a team coached by older brother Kyle, seven years Conner’s senior and a former three-year starting quarterback at El Toro. Conner was determined to play receiver but Kyle wasn’t having it.
“‘No, you’re a quarterback,’” Kyle remembers telling Conner. “‘You can throw a football, you’re not running it. You’re going to play quarterback.’
“It was a no-brainer. He had a lot of fun doing it. He’s always had a good arm.”
Big Brother knew best as Conner Manning quickly took to the position. After his freshman year of high school, Manning let go of his first love, baseball, even though he threw two no-hitters that season and topped out at 87 mph. As he entered his sophomore year, he’d earned the starting job for the junior varsity.
The season opener was part of a showcase in Boston, where El Toro was to play Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania. With Hurricane Earl looming, the schools agreed to play the varsity game first.
Before halftime, El Toro lost both its starting and backup quarterbacks to injury. Chargers coach Rob Frith had no intention of even using Manning on varsity that season. Now he had no choice.
“Conner is sitting in the stands and he’s eating pizza and waiting for his game,” Frith said. “I go to him and say, 'Listen, you need to get a varsity jersey and get warmed up because you’re going in.' He didn’t hesitate, he jumped up, it’s like the piece of pizza goes flying, he hustled down to the locker room and we got him a jersey. That’s how the legend began.”
Manning borrowed jersey No. 7 from teammate Brandon Longenecker, the only time he hasn’t worn No. 17. Manning said it was also the only time he wasn’t mentally prepared to play.
To his credit, Manning had watched film of Delaware Valley’s varsity team, but the speed of the game was too much for him. The Chargers mostly ran the ball in the second half and ended up losing. Manning would start the next game, a victory against El Modena. When original starter Mack Spees returned from injury the following week, Frith was torn over who to start and initially went with the senior.
“How do we justify starting a tenth grader?” Frith asked himself. “But we couldn’t justify not starting him. He was earning it every week. Conner just outplayed him. We charted the throws. He won the position every week. We had to just do the right thing.”
Manning soon won the job and made eight starts as a sophomore while leading El Toro to the second round of the Southwest Division playoffs. Behind the scenes, Manning was becoming a “football rat,” as Frith described it, engulfed in preparation and breaking down film. He started offseason training with private quarterback coach Bill Cunerty, who has tutored Barkley for years and, more recently, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts.
“I could tell early on with Conner that he was driven,” Cunerty said. “When you talk to him, he really focuses on what you’re trying to do. You have 100 percent of his attention. One of the reasons I really enjoy Conner and Barkley and Luck, they always want to know why. They're not going to just accept something at face value.”
Last fall, Manning took off in Frith’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense and led the Chargers to a 12-2 mark and an appearance in the Southwest Division finals.
This past offseason Manning continued meeting with Cunerty, only this time he brought with him five receivers and a running back. It was the biggest group Cunerty had ever worked with for one quarterback, but he loved the chemistry it built, noting how Manning’s teammates really responded to his leadership.
Frith was busy himself, making trips to the universities of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Louisiana Tech, as he looked for ways to expand El Toro's offense. With a move to the Pac-5 Division pending, he felt his undersized team would need to be more creative.
Frith was confident Manning, thanks to his work ethic and high football IQ, would master the Chargers’ revamped spread offense. The proof has been in the production. Manning has not only picked up where he left off but is sprinting past last year's pace. Through five games, he has thrown for 2,255 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Chargers are undefeated.
“We’re trying to be the fastest team out there,” Frith said. “We don’t have time for huddling or wristbands or anything. Conner makes decisions for us while the play is happening. Each play has its own menu and then he decides what he wants to do. The running backs and receivers, they're all ready for the football. The offensive line doesn’t always know what’s going on behind them.
“And we don’t know what he’s going to do. Nobody knows except for the kid wearing 17.”
Cunerty lauds Manning's quick release and ability to see the field, but his favorite attribute is the 18-year-old's decision making.
“I've coached a couple guys who could throw a football through a car wash and it not get wet,” Cunerty said. “I need to know that they're good decision makers. That’s the part that has set him apart from other high school quarterbacks. He’s throwing for big numbers because he’s throwing to the right guy.”
BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT
The caveat is El Toro hasn't exactly played the toughest nonleague competition.
Manning (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) knows all eyes will be on him and El Toro after Friday's game against Garden Grove. The Chargers' four South Coast League foes have an 18-2 combined record.
"I know there's been a lot of stuff about league coming up, 'Can he still do it?' " Manning said. "I just use it as motivation to prove everyone that we are for real. We're excited for the challenge. I like to prove it with our team. I'm really big on my guys and not myself. That's how I like to look at it. I love my players, my coaches. I wouldn't have it any other way."
It's always "we" with Manning. A week ago, he passed for 613 yards in a 77-46 victory against Valhalla of El Cajon. When he heard his final total, he smiled and quietly walked away. He knew he'd just broken the county record.
Too bad he didn't tell anyone, not his coach, not even best friend and receiver, Cody White.
"All he told me was he wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep," said White, who has known Manning since the fourth grade. "He was really tired. You never knew that he broke the O.C. record. He just wouldn't tell you. He's the most humble guy."
Manning is 1,830 yards and 20 touchdowns shy of the county's career marks, which he will shatter should he continue his current pace. His 7,642 yards are third-best all time.
"The only stat I'm worried about is our wins and losses, really," Manning said. "I couldn't care less about all the stats I'm putting up right now. It'll all come within the game."
That doesn't stop Manning's eyes from welling up a bit when his name is used in the same breath as a Barkley. But the play that stands out most to him from this season is his one interception, which came during the opener against Huntington Beach.
"I remember all the little negative things and what I want to get better at instead of remembering all my successes," Manning said. "The negative parts stand out to me more. It's just the way I am and the competitor I am. It's how I like to treat it.
"To even be mentioned with Matt Barkley is a huge honor. It's hard to talk about that right now because we're still in season. But looking back at it and looking at what my team and I accomplished, I'll definitely be thankful."
And he would appreciate it if you kept questioning how good he is.
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