Penn State’s 49-10 loss to No 4 Michigan in Ann Arbor Saturday was largely forgettable for the Nittany Lions. But for one young player, well, it may well go down as a memorable turning point in his career.
As the blowout was unfolding, 19-year-old true sophomore Manny Bowen looked around the defensive huddle and realized that he had suddenly become the veteran of the injury-sapped linebacker corps.
The three starters at the beginning of the season — Jason Cabinda, Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White — were all out due to injury. Brandon Smith, the 22-year-old, married former walk-on who had taken over the middle linebacker position, had been ejected for targeting. And another middle linebacker, former PSU wrestler Jan Johnson, was lost during the game due to injury.
“Today, you started to see flashes of it,” Bowen said of assuming a leadership role at Linebacker U. “Jason Cabinda, who is usually out there, is usually the vocal guy. And then last year was my freshman year, and I didn’t really have that big of a role.
“But now, you have people banged up and out,” he added. “So I kind of had to be the one stepping up today and getting on those guys and yelling at them — you know, motivating them that we can’t give up (big) plays … and we’ve got to take the opportunities that we’re given. Just get in their ear a little bit because those (veterans) weren’t around to do it today. … I felt like I had to be that guy to step up and do it.”
"You have people banged up and out. So I kind of had to be the one stepping up today and getting on those guys and yelling at them — you know, motivating them that we can’t give up (big) plays … and we’ve got to take the opportunities that we’re given. Just get in their ear a little bit because those (veterans) weren’t around to do it today. … I felt like I had to be that guy to step up and do it.”
Wartman-White and Johnson are both out for the season with undisclosed injuries. After the loss to Michigan, PSU coach James Franklin made it sound as if Cabinda and Bell would miss significant time, too.
Technically speaking, Penn State has 10 linebackers on scholarship. But two of them are former walk-ons (Smith and special-teams ace Von Walker). And two of them were recruited for other positions (former S Koa Farmer, who was moved to LB last week, and former RB Johnathan Thomas, who was moved to LB in the preseason).
So the only healthy initial scholarship players who were recruited as linebackers are Bowen, fellow sophomore Jake Cooper and true freshman Cam Brown — all of whom logged significant action Saturday.
Part of that stems from the residual effects of since invalidated NCAA sanctions that severely cut into Penn State’s available scholarships for several years. And part is because Franklin’s staff has not yet had the same sort of success landing linebackers as it has at quickly re-building depth at other positions.
The bottom line is that Bowen — who ideally would have redshirted as a true freshman to add weight and muscle and then emerged as a backup this year — is now a focal point at the position. He led the Lions in special teams tackles last year (13) and his 34 career stops are most among the healthy ’backers.
So that meant coming out to face the media after the lopsided loss to the Wolverines.
Bowen was asked if he had ever seen one position on one team slammed by injuries like this — as if he had some vast bank of memories from which to draw.
“No, I never have,” he replied. “When you look at all the other teams in the country, a lot of them have a lot of depth. So when this type of stuff does happen, there’s a lot of people who are able to step up. But we’re a very young group right now … and we have a lot of young guys who have to step up.”
Stepping up in this instance includes being able to plug any need that may arise.
“A lot of guys who are younger and have played their position know that at this time they’ve got to start learning more positions, so we’re able to move around more and so we can fix the holes that are there,” Bowen said. “It’s just unfortunate right now. Everybody’s wishing that the guys who are out, they get back as soon as possible. It’s just not what you want to happen. So we have everyone who can trying to step up and learn new positions.”
How does this impact him specifically?
“I play Sam and Will,” Bowen said. “I guess I’m going to have to start learning the Mike position now.”
For better or worse, this whole experience is surely something he will never forget.