IOWA CITY, Iowa — In the biggest game of his true freshman season, Manny Rugamba made the biggest play of his Iowa career.
On a third down in Hawkeyes’ territory in the fourth quarter, he stepped in front of a pass and ripped the football from Michigan’s Jehu Chesson for an interception.
His play that day— 4 tackles, 3 pass breakups and a pick — impressed seemingly everyone but Rugamba.
“People say I had a good game, but there were also things I did wrong in that game,” Rugamba said. “It was a learning experience.”
Rugamba put together a debut season in 2016 that players only dream of. The start was nice, but Rugamba is focusing more on what he can do than what he did do last season.
It’s why he’s not thinking about his interception against Michigan, but the plays where he was out of position in Iowa’s 14-13 upset victory on Nov. 12.
“It was my first start,” Rugamba said, “but it just had me hungry to prove more.”
He knows what he accomplished. He’s not ignoring his Michigan highlights. He said he gained confidence from the game, smiling as he talks about his performance.
But reliving the past won’t help his future.
The Michigan game, where he started in place of the injured Greg Mabin, was a microcosm of his season. No stage seemed too big for the 3-star prospect from Naperville (Ill.) Central High School.
He quickly became Iowa’s nickelback, grabbing the position and never letting go, making 19 tackles, breaking up 4 passes and intercepting 2 others.
Former Thorpe Award winner Desmond King made a similar debut as a true freshman. Now, Iowa needs Rugamba to go from playing alongside King to playing like him as the team’s shutdown corner.
“Hopefully, now he can take it, this experience, and roll with it,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in November. “Desmond kind of got into the game the same way about four years ago so a good role model that way.”
Moving past his injury
Everything was great for Rugamba until the end of the season. He broke his collarbone against Nebraska in the regular-season finale.
The injury kept him from building off his Michigan performance. Instead of using the final game, and bowl prep, as a launching point for his sophomore season, Rugamba sat on the sidelines.
Spring practice was his first opportunity to get back on the field. He wanted to make up for lost time, so he threw himself into mastering the defense. He said he knows the assignment miscues he made as a freshman won’t fly as a sophomore.
“We are all trying to learn,” Rugamba said. “[Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil] Parker does a good job with that of film and study.”
King’s departure creates a leadership void in a young and inexperienced secondary. Rugamba will be asked to fill it, and he said he doesn’t plan on doing it alone.
“We are all trying to be leaders ourselves,” Rugamba said. “We can lead in different ways. Some guys are more vocal. Some guys lead by example.”
Every player will do his part, but Rugamba will do more of the heavy lifting than others. The Michigan game showed he’s capable.
Just don’t expect him to look back on it. It won’t help him move forward.