Ron Gould had a lot of success with walk-on players as running backs coach at Cal.
During his 16-year tenure, he said he had seven backs who walked on at Berkeley and later earned scholarships. Four played in the NFL.
In his first year as UC Davis head coach, Gould has uncovered another gem in junior Gabe Manzanares, a walk-on from San Francisco with "a heart bigger than the United States."
The community college transfer has quickly gone from obscurity to an Aggies fan favorite because of his hard-charging running style.
"I've been blessed to have some good young men in my time," Gould said. "But with Gabe, that was a gift."
In the past two games, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Manzanares has rushed for 383 yards and three touchdowns, a big reason the Aggies are 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference after losing their first four games.
Only four other Aggies have rushed for higher two-game totals in team history.
Manzanares is third in the Big Sky with 546 yards and eighth in all-purpose yards with 671, despite sitting out against Nevada on Sept. 7 with an injury.
"Gabe is my kind of back," said Montana coach Mick Delaney, whose Grizzlies play at UC Davis on Saturday. "Gabe is the type of guy you love to have. He runs down hill, he's a tough guy who breaks tackles. There's nothing flashy about him. He's just going to attack, attack, attack."
Pretty heady stuff for someone who was mainly a role player in his previous college stops and who still feels fortunate just to walk on with the Aggies.
"I was kind of in limbo for a while," Manzanares said. "I feel lucky. I feel blessed. I got a great opportunity, and I'm trying to make the best of it."
Manzanares rushed for 730 yards and four touchdowns as a senior at St. Ignatius of San Francisco in 2009, carried a handful of times as a freshman at Division III Wesleyan University in Middleton, Conn., and was a special-teams player and second-string running back last season at City College of San Francisco.
Wesleyan might seem an odd choice except that academics always were as important as sports in the Manzanares household.
Gabe and his three older siblings – brothers Gustavo and Marvin, and sister Marlene – were raised by their mother in the blue-collar Crocker-Amazon neighborhood of San Francisco after their father died when Gabe was 7.
"Academics have always been big in our house," said Gustavo, who played defensive back at CCSF and San Jose State, and is now a CCSF assistant coach. "My mom (Barbara) worked hard as a single mom to put three boys through St. Ignatius.
"At Wesleyan, Gabe loved the teachers, loved his classes and the small-school atmosphere. But long story short, it wasn't a good fit for him as far as football. He wanted to play at a higher level."
Manzanares played last year at CCSF, which lost in the state community college championship game and sent 15 players to four-year schools on scholarships.
Manzanares wasn't one of them. He understudied Kristoffer Oglubode, who rushed for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns before signing with Idaho.
"Kris is a great player," Gabe Manzanares said. "We'd push each other at practice. I kept working hard."
Gustavo and longtime CCSF coach George Rush encouraged Manzanares to be patient. Gould, who had been hired late at UC Davis, had recruited a couple of talented freshmen running backs but was on the lookout for someone with a little more experience.
Gould soon realized he had something special that went beyond Manzanares' relentless work ethic and passion for the game. He saw someone with a football mind "off the charts."
"It's not speed to hole, but speed through the hole," Gould said. "If the back's IQ is not where it needs to be, he can screw things up. Because Gabe's got such a great football IQ, he's been able to adjust to all the tempos and different runs. That's impressive for a guy who came here during the summer."
Manzanares' quick acclimation continues under Gould and running backs coach Bryan Wright.
"Coach Wright sets such high standards, and it's a treat when coach Gould comes into our meetings," Manzanares said. "The other running backs have helped me and pushed me and my line, I have so much respect for those guys. I've learned so much since I've been here."
Despite his duties at CCSF and being a strength and conditioning trainer at St. Ignatius, Gustavo was able to break away to attend the Idaho State game on Sept. 28. He beamed as his younger brother rushed for a career-high 208 yards and one touchdown in the 30-13 victory.
"As a brother, I was so proud because I know he's been through a lot," Gustavo said. "He stuck with it, kept working and believed in his talent."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.