Penn State has again needed Manny Bowen to grow up in a hurry this season. Now he is starting to play in one as well.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore made his first career start at strong-side linebacker last weekend against Pitt. An apparent wrist injury to starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda forced weak-side ’backer Nyeem Wartman-White to the middle, and then Brandon Bell moved from the strong side to the weak side.
Bowen is also expected to have a prominent role when the Nittany Lions host Temple on Saturday at noon, given the uncertain status of Cabinda and the fact that Bell missed time in the Pitt game with an unspecified injury of his own.
The Owls, incidentally, are the same team against whom Bowen, a native of Barnegat, N.J., made his first career appearance, coming off the bench in the 2015 season opener, a 27-10 loss in Lincoln Financial Field. Again, the reason was injuries, to Wartman-White and Bell.
Bowen has no doubt he is more prepared for the task this time – that at this point in his career he is better at “using my actual speed in the game, and not feeling for things,” as he said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
“Actually being able to pull the trigger and go – just getting in there and instead of looking for things, letting your keys take you to the ball,” he said, adding that that also makes him more physical, especially against the run.
“He’s fast, explosive, violent, aggressive,” coach James Franklin said. “Really have seen a lot of those things since he’s been here, and really more so in the last six months, as he’s getting more comfortable and getting more confident. I think Manny has a very, very bright future here.”
Bowen was credited with five tackles, all solos, against Pitt. One was a stop behind the line of scrimmage. While his accidental collision with defensive tackle Kevin Givens knocked Givens out of the game with an apparent head injury – “I’m hearing Kevin’s good,” Bowen said -- he also helped stem the tide in the second half, when the Lions cut a 28-7 second-quarter deficit to three.
The final defensive numbers don’t look good, though – 341 yards on the ground, a whopping 226 of those in the first half.
“We can’t wait to get into the game,” he said. “We have to be playing salty, right off the bat. How we played in the fourth quarter, we can’t wait to turn it up.”
It took some time for his own career to take shape. He was in the Barnegat school system through eighth grade, but according to a story that appeared on Shoresportsnetwork.com two years ago his mom, Monica, was diagnosed with breast cancer at that point. That led to financial hardship for the family and a series of moves.
Manny spent his first two high school years at Southern Regional and Central Regional High Schools, respectively, and because he was the oldest of three children, felt compelled to help the family out any way he could.
“When you’re going through a hard time like that, and you see your mom going through that and you don’t have a dad around and you’re the oldest, you really have got to step up,” he told writer Scott Stump. “I shunned my schoolwork and put my family first because that’s what really mattered to me.”
By his junior year Monica’s cancer was in remission. Manny was also taken in by the family of Barnegat quarterback Cinjun Erskine (now at Bucknell), with Cinjun’s parents, Bob and Lisa, agreeing to become Bowen’s legal guardians. (Bowen did not wish to speak about that when asked Tuesday.)
Barnegat coach Rob Davis told Stump that Bowen’s transcript was “atrocious” at that point, so Davis leaned on the youngster, made sure he took care of business in the classroom.
Improved schoolwork, along with his continued excellence on the field, made Bowen attractive to recruiters, and he committed to Penn State in June 2014.
Asked Tuesday where he might have ended up had others not intervened, he was succinct.
“I could have ended up anywhere,” he said.
Maybe so. But what is crystal clear right now, at least, is this: Wherever he’s going, he’s going to get there using his actual speed.