Cole Manhart was once told he was too small to play major college football. Four years later he’s developed into an offensive lineman that could very well play on the big-time stage in the National Football League.
Manhart, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound senior starting offensive tackle at Division II Nebraska Kearney, was an American Football Coaches Association first-team All-American last season and the lone Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association first-team selection.
He has been tabbed for many preseason accolades this summer including All-American honors by the Sporting News and Lindy’s. Bleacher Report also selected Manhart as one of the top 14 small college (FCS, Division II, Division II and NAIA) prospects for the 2015 NFL draft.
Manhart was a 240-pound All-Continental League lineman during his senior season at ThunderRidge High School but his size dampened his chances to play Division I football which left a chip on his shoulder.
“I had aspirations to go to the University of Colorado or Colorado State,” said Manhart. “They told me at the time I wasn’t big enough to go play there. As I’ve gotten older I have realized what a great opportunity it was that UNK took a shot on me.
“It’s really been a chip on my shoulder because they said I couldn’t play Division I football. I’m just out to show them that I can play football with the best kids in the country. I don’t care if they are Division I kids, Division II kids or Division III kids. I am one of the best offensive linemen in the country and I’m going to show that to people this year.”
CSU wanted Manhart to walk on but the chance to be a big-man on campus at Kearney was too appealing.
“I remember one time a Colorado State coach came to my school and said we’d like to offer you a scholarship but we offered our last scholarship to this kid from Pomona and it was because he was about 40 pounds heavier,” recalled Manhart. “At that time I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I thought they would have time to develop me. They offered me a preferred walk-on (spot).
“UNK was always loyal to me and offered me a scholarship. Coming from a single household with just my Mom, taking the money was a pretty easy decision for me rather than going to CSU and having to pay my way and play football at the same time.”
Manhart will be starting for the third consecutive season for a Loper offense that averaged 203.7 rushing yards a game during the 2013 season.
“I got up to 260 pounds by spring ball of my first year,” said Manhart. “I went home that first year, came back and I was about 290. Right now I’m at about 310. So it was gradual. I put the weight on the best way possible and didn’t try to stack it all on at one time.
“That’s what colleges are looking for these days, those kids that are 300 pounds that they can take right away. That was a big thing of why I didn’t get an opportunity at a Division I school. I wasn’t 300 pounds coming out of high school.”
It took a year but Manhart launched his mission to prove that many recruiters were wrong.
“Once I got to college, and started to get a little more confidence, I knew I could play college football,” confessed Manhart. “Then my sophomore year when I became a full-time starter, I thought I can do this. Everything really started clicking for me.”
Manhart has been working out all summer with teammates in hopes of improving his chances to play at the next level. He is strong, squats 500 pounds, plays aggressive and is agile enough to play H-Back in Kearney’s `hammer package.’
“He is one of our most celebrated players of all time and we have had some good ones over the years,” said Kearney head coach and offensive line coach Darrell Morris.
Morris told the that “at our level he’s the complete package. He’s athletic, runs well, he’s got a motor, he’s strong as a bull, he’s got the frame and he understands football. If he continues to develop the way he is, I don’t see people in the NFL not coming to take a look at him.”
Manhart, however, is not putting the cart before the horse.
“I’ve given the NFL a good look at the type of caliber player that I am,” he added. “But I still think I have something to prove because I do come from a small school and being consistent at a small school is something big that NFL teams are going to see.
“So if I can go out and show them that I have done this for three years in a row and I’m one of the top offensive linemen in the nation at the Division II level that will go a long way. I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder and just being able to go out this season and be able to put everything on the line one more time for them does have a lot of importance.”