Small school, big star for former Corsicana standout Manning thrived as cornerback, returner at Division II Abilene Christian Gerald Ewing / ACU Creative Services Danieal Manning (front) was a little of everything for Abilene Christian: rushing, receiving, returning kicks and intercepting passes. 11:54 AM CDT on Thursday, April 13, 2006 By RICK GOSSELIN / The Dallas Morning News Danieal Manning didn't play college football at the NCAA Division I level. But he knows what a Division I player looks like. He need only look in the mirror. Manning was a two-time Division II All-American safety at Abilene Christian who opted to skip his senior season to enter the 2006 NFL draft. It's a huge step from Division II fields to the NFL. But Manning knows he's ready. He knew was ready for the big time coming out of Corsicana High School in 2001. Manning orally committed to Texas A&M in the fall of his senior year, but wound up signing a letter of intent with Nebraska that winter. So Division I powers obviously believed he could play at their level. But Manning couldn't qualify academically for Nebraska. Still, he moved to Lincoln and worked while attempting to gain admittance to the school. Failing there, he returned home in 2002 and wound up following his best friend and a cousin to Abilene Christian, enrolling in January 2003. "I just wanted to get in school," Manning said. "I felt I was falling behind. So I got in school and football took off from there." Did it ever. Manning began playing a Division I brand of football at a Division II school. He started as a freshman and played offense, defense and special teams. Manning led the conference with six interceptions on defense, caught six passes and scored two touchdowns on offense, and returned kickoffs and punts. He was named All-Lone Star Conference – the first of three consecutive all-league selections. So out of place was a Division I talent at the Division II level that opponents stopped throwing in his direction in 2004. So Manning focused on his return game. He led the nation in punt returns that season with a 22.0-yard average and two touchdowns and finished sixth in kickoff returns at 29.2 yards with one score. In addition to no longer throwing in his direction, opponents stopped kicking the ball his way as a junior in 2005. That's when Manning knew it was time to move on. He figured he'd never see the football in college in 2006. "I didn't have as productive a season last year as I did my sophomore year," Manning said. "Heading into my senior season I knew I was going to move to corner, so I knew I wouldn't get the [defensive] opportunities that I had as a junior. So I decided to come out. I felt it was time." One NFL coach said watching tapes of Manning at Abilene Christian was like watching an adult playing Pop Warner football. Manning scored 10 career touchdowns at Abilene on three kickoffs, three punts, two pass receptions, an interception and a fumble return. The average length of his scores was 63.4 yards. Last August, Manning was named to Abilene Christian's all-century team as both a defensive back and a kick returner. He has been labeled the school's best player since Wilbert Montgomery, the all-time leading rusher of the Philadelphia Eagles. "It's an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as Wilbert," Manning said. "My grandmother and her brother grew up with Wilbert, so I always knew him. I just didn't think I'd be going to Abilene Christian following anyone's footsteps." Manning was a cornerback in high school and he'll be a cornerback in the NFL. He was one of the few small-school players invited to the annual East-West Shrine postseason all-star game in January and earned a starting spot at cornerback. His week in San Antonio competing with Division I players earned Manning an invitation to the annual NFL scouting combine in February in Indianapolis. He continued to impress there, running a 4.46 40-yard dash at 5-11, 202 pounds. Now he projects as a first-day draft selection. Manning didn't take the most direct route to the NFL, but he appreciates the journey even more now that he's reached the finish line. "It taught me a lifelong lesson – how to work hard and have patience," Manning said. "This was my path. It was meant for me to go this route. I never complained about it. I just kept moving forward on my path."