UBC's dynamic bookend duo of offensive tackles -- Giovanni Manu (left) and Theo Bendet -- are all smile this past Nov. 11 after leading UBC to the Hardy Cup conference championship at Thunderbird Stadium. Next stop: NFL? We'll have to wait until draft day to find out. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC Athletics 2023 All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Football

The story of Gio and Theo: UBC’s book-end offensive tackles bring rare size and athleticism to the party! NFL teams and major pundits can’t help but be impressed ahead of 2024 draft!

By Howard Tsumura

VANCOUVER — The story of Gio and Theo is the story of two ‘Made-in-B.C.’ high school football products who not only made the decision to play for their home university team, but along that  journey turned themselves into the kinds of players with a chance to play in the National Football League.

UBC offensive lineman Giovanni Manu, after a personal NFL pre-draft workout recently for America’s Team, looked Dallas Cowboys’ owner and GM Jerry Jones right in the eye and said “…if you take a shot on me, sir, I’ll change your program.”

That gem was relayed by his head coach, Blake Nill, who earlier this week found himself as a guest on How ‘Bout That, an informative, Dallas-based podcast on all things Cowboys.

Such has been the state of growing interest when talk turns to Manu, the 6-foot-7, 352-pound Tonga-born prospect who back in 2017-18 at Pitt Meadows Secondary — before football would become his sole focus — majored on the basketball court to the tune of 30 points and 12 rebounds per game for the Marauders.

UBC’s Gio Manu shows off his power and technique at the line of scrimmage this past season at Thunderbird Stadium. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC Athletics 2023 All Rights Reserved)

Meanwhile, fellow ‘Birds offensive lineman Theo Benedet expressed relief in making all of his connecting flights from the U.S. midwest following his personal workout for the Indianapolis Colts, insuring his arrival Wednesday evening at downtown Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre for UBC’s annual Big Block athletic awards ceremony where the 6-foot-7, 305-pounder was named co-winner of the Bobby Gaul award, recognizing the school’s top graduating male athlete.

All of that’s been the whirlwind norm of late for the Thunderbirds’ book-end tackles, who along the road to the 2024 NFL draft later this month (April 25-27) in Detroit, have produced the kinds of measurables sure to catch the attention of pro scouts and pre-draft pundits.

Nill is quick to establish the fact that when UBC held its pro day two Fridays ago at B.C. Place, the prime attraction was rightfully Benedet, the two-time J.P. Metras Trophy winner as the nation’s top down lineman.

Theo Benedet’s pro day performance made him an offensive tackle worth watching when the NFL draft opens with three days of excitement later this month in Detroit. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC Athletics 2023 All Rights Reserved)

The former Handsworth Royals standout from North Vancouver did not disappoint with a 9-foot-6 broad jump and a vertical jump of 34.5 inches, the former a measure that J.C. Abbott of 3DownNation later added would have given Benedet the sixth best performance within his position group at the NFL combine, and the latter the fifth-best.

Yet while Benedet continued to re-affirm his place as a potential NFL draft pick, Manu seized the opportunity to catapult his stock to similar levels, his testable stuff seeming to carry added oomph based on the massive frame he was so expertly propelling.

“Giovanni stepped on the scale and looked in real good shape, then (one of the scouts) yells out ‘Three-hundred-and-fifty-two pounds,’” begins Nill. “Then about five minutes later, he (vertical) jumped 33-and-a-half… and that’s when the cat was out of the bag.

“And then a few minutes after that he runs a 4.96 40 (yard dash) with 16 NFL (stop) watches on him, and so everyone knows about him now.”

So much for best-kept secret.

(Here’s the link to a story I wrote on Giovanni as he finished his hoops career and committed to football with the UBC Thunderbirds back in 2018)

Manu has since parlayed his pro day into what Nill said have been personal workouts for eight teams including Dallas, both New York clubs, Cleveland, New England and Denver.

“We had 17 or so NFL teams come to our campus this past season (and) they might have thought ‘No one knows about this kid so we can probably sign him as an undrafted free agent,'” said Nill of Manu. “Now, everybody knows about him, and everybody knows about Theo. So now it’s going to be, do they feel like they’re at a level where they can justify a draft pick on him?”

And while there is no way to misinterpret the heightened level of awareness Manu has gotten over the past two weeks, Nill offers his perspective on the state of UBC’s book-end talents.

“The reason Theo is maybe taking a bit of a backseat with all of this excitement is that (the NFL) already knows about him,” Nill began. “When they came durting the season, they came to see Theo Benedet. And while they were here, we also showed them Giovanni.”

Giovanni Manu had a massive growth spurt between his Grade 8 and 10 years at Pitt Meadows. Now the 6-foot-7, 352-pound UBC Thunderbirds’ offensive tackle he is standing on the precipice of an NFL career. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC Athletics 2023 All Rights Reserved)


The 2018 Thunderbirds’ season was the end of the first chapter of the Blake Nill era at UBC.

It was the final season for Vanier Cup-winning quarterback Michael O’Connor and his star-studded cast, yet the storybook ending came to a crushing end in the opening round of the Canada West playoffs after a walk-off field goal by Saskatchewan gave the Huskies a 38-35 OT win at Thunderbird Stadium.

That loss, coupled with what was shaping up in 2019 as the program’s only low ebb under Nill’s stewardship ultimately led the head coach to trust his gut and go with youth at a position where it is always served.

“We had O’Connor, Trivel Pinto, Sheridan Lawley, Blake Whiteley and a lot of others and we should have won the Vanier Cup,” Nill remembered of that team’s veteran core. “We lost all of those guys.

“I remember coming back to work and saying that we were going to throw those two tackles out there and it was going to be a baptism by fire,” Nill continued of Manu and Benedet. “And we were going to stick by them.”

Manu, who had led Pitt Meadows to the B.C. high school basketball championships his senior year at Pitt Meadows, was sold on Nill’s plan for his development.

Unable, however, to gain immediate entrance to UBC, Manu followed in the footsteps of Rudy Ruettiger, taking classes on campus at Corpus Christie College to upgrade, gaining entrance to UBC in time for the 2019 season, ultimately dove-tailing with another multi-sport standout from North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary: Theo Benedet.

The redshirt freshman Manu started from Week 1 of the 2019 season, while the pure-freshman Benedet took over a starting role by Week 5.

“They got the (bleep) kicked out of them,” assessed Nill of the lessons learned during a trying 2-6 Canada West campaign. “Then (in 2020) we didn’t play because of covid. But when the new edition appeared two years later they were pretty impressive athletes. Another two years after that and they are basically NFL athletes now.

“I am telling you they just came motivated,” Nill continued of the progress the pair made under the team’s strength and conditioning coach Joe McCullum, the former North Vancouver-Carson Graham product who played on the offensive line at Butte JC, and in 1999 with the Utah Utes.

“I think I have the top recruiter in the country here in Shomari Williams, then Joe McCullum flat-out makes a difference, and then we have (former CFL veteran offensive line coach) Dan Dorazio teaching them how to play up front,” Nill crowed with pride.

The additions of quarterback Garrett Rooker and running backs Isaiah Knight and Dane Kapler in 2021, playing behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines, keyed the run-pass attack to the point where this past season the UBC offence helped ignite the team’s drive to wins in both the Hardy Cup and Mitchell Bowl before falling to Montreal in November’s Vanier Cup national championship final.

Keeping UBC’s offensive line standing tall is right tackle Theo Bendet. The 6-foot-7, 305 pound graduate of North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary, is coming off an NFL pre-draft workout with the Indianapolis Colts. (Photo by Bob Frid property of UBC Athletics 2023 All Rights Reserved)


At 323 pages in length and exhaustive in its deep breakdown of virtually every player set to be picked in the 2024 NFL draft, The Beast — the annual draft guide written and compiled by The Athletic’s draft guru Dane Brugler — is the fan’s most informed read heading into draft day.

Upon its release earlier this week, Brugler and Co. were well in-tune with the two UBC offensive tackles.

On page 133, Giovanni Manu is listed as the No. 31 offensive tackle prospect.

Writes Brugler in part: “His unpolished tendencies are easy to spot on tape… but he moves really well for his size, especially out in space, and punishes anyone in his way.”

Manu, Brugler feels, is “highly intriguing as a developmental tackle”, and “has rare athletic tools that might get him drafted.”

Manu is given a grade as a priority free agent.

Pitt Meadows’ Giovanni Manu defends in the past during the 2018 B.C. senior boys AA Final Four at the LEC. The Athletic’s Dave Brugler thinks the UBC standout offensive tackle has the kinds of gifts that could make him an NFL draft pick later this month. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca)

Theo Benedet is listed as the No. 39 offensive tackle, and although his ranking does not come with an accompanying synopsis, he is given the same priority free agent grade.

Of course what ultimately winds up being a player’s regular NFL position, especially on the offensive line, is never fully determined on draft day.

If either or both find there way onto a roster, they might start out at guard. Or not.

And although you can never use last season’s numbers as any kind of final marker because everything depends on the overall strength of the draft-eligible class and every team’s individual needs at all positions, it’s something to consider that last season there were 21 linemen drafted as offensive tackles, 13 as guards and nine as centres for a total of 43 of the 259 overall selections.


Where do Theo Benedet and Gio Manu stand right now in terms of each other?

In Nill’s opinion, Benedet’s recognition as the only repeat Metras Trophy winner over the history of the award is a meaningful stat that needs to be respected in the weeks heading up to the draft.

Yet that doesn’t mean that Manu lacks his own special flair and his own arc as it pertains to his ultimate ceiling. And it’s all of this that makes watching this pair such a fascinating study.

“Theo Benedet, without rattling any nerves, is probably the best offensive lineman I have coached, and the other coaches agree with me too because he’s won the Metras twice,” said Nill, who added that when Benedet was tested at the Shrine Bowl, he was selected best overall offensive tackle in terms of testing done at the event (see X posting above).

“And then you look at Giovanni and I think Gio is a better athlete than Theo,” said Nill. “He’s a bigger athlete. He’s just not as refined as a football player as Theo is. If you had to play today, Theo is going to be ahead of Gio but that might not be the in two years. Gio is just at a different stage of his development.”

Nill loves to tell the story of a special film clip from 1994, one which shows Dallas’ 335-pound Hall of Fame left tackle Larry Allen chasing New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Darrion Conner, who had picked off a Troy Aikman pass and was headed for the end zone.

“We watch his Hall of Fame speech and I show him clips of that play,” Nill explained. “I say ‘Gio, wake up, man, this is you.’ I’m not saying he is going to be Larry Allen. I am saying Gio may be unknown, but he is genetically a freak.

“I could probably call up (former wrestling promoter) Vince McMahon and get into a bidding war for Gio as the new Undertaker if I had to,” added Nill, who over the course of his coaching career had Steve Morley (OL, St. Mary’s, Green Bay 2004) , Linden Gaydosh (DT, Calgary, Carolina 2013), Elie Bouka (DB, Calgary, Arizona 2016, Philadelphia 2018) and Dakoda Shepley (OT, UBC, NY Jets 2018, SF 49ers 2020, Dallas 2022, Indianapolis 2023, Dallas present) make NFL rosters.

In two weeks time, we’ll all know how the next chapter of the Gio and Theo story is going to start.

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