Manny Bowen understands why people would worry about Utah’s ability to replace the production and playmaking of linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. After all, the way those guys made so many tackles persuaded Bowen to become a Ute.
As a graduate transfer from Penn State, where he was suspended or dismissed multiple times, Bowen is Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s latest reclamation project. The most recent high-profile case turned out well, with former Oregon receiver Darren Carrington II catching 70 passes in 2017. Ex-BYU linebacker Francis Bernard also has blended in with the Utes, and is projected to start alongside Bowen in 2019.
“This is a redemption opportunity,” Bowen said before the Utes took this week off for the school’s spring break. “A lot of people in my position don’t get this chance. So my foot is on the gas pedal this whole, entire season.”
Asked what went wrong at Penn State, Bowen said, “Long story short, I was a young guy making some poor decisions. I had a great opportunity to grow and learn from those experiences and I’m here now and I get to show what lessons I’ve learned.”
Whittingham likes that attitude. As opposed to relying on his program’s record of helping second-chance players thrive, he says he judges people with troubled pasts on a case-by-case basis — looking for signs of humility and remorse.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said of Bowen, “He's definitely got the I'm-gonna-prove-myself mentality and not the I-have-all-the-answers mentality. That's what you want to see, particularly when you're coming in and you want guys to respect you.”
Bowen impressed Scalley by reporting to a special-teams meeting with a pen and notebook; in 12 years of coaching at Utah, he’d never seen that. On the field, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Bowen has looked good through three practices. He’s wearing the old No. 43 from his Penn State years and is eager to make an impact in his new home, teaming with Bernard, who’s sidelined for the spring due to injury.
“Francis and I look forward to filling those shoes this year,” Bowen said, having watched the work of NFL prospects Hansen and Barton, who played behind a defensive line that helped them look good. All of those linemen are returning in 2019.
What attracted the New Jersey native to Utah? “This defense,” he said. “If you guys watch the film from last year, you see the way they get after the ball. This defense has a swarm mentality. I see myself fitting in perfect here.”
That happened at Penn State, temporarily. As a sophomore, he made 12 tackles in a win over Ohio State and helped the Nittany Lions win the 2016 Big Ten championship, but was suspended for the Rose Bowl vs. USC. In 2017, coach James Franklin again suspended him for the last three games of the regular season and dismissed him from the team prior to the Fiesta Bowl against Washington.
The reasons for the disciplinary actions never have been published. Franklin reinstated Bowen in early August, with “stipulations for Manny to achieve,” he announced. But the week of the 2018 season opener, Bowen walked away from the team, intending to graduate in December and transfer for his senior season.
In mid-November, he picked Utah. The Utes need him, with linebacker Donavan Thompson having left the program — with some chance that he’ll return, Whittingham said.
“He's got a nose for the football,” Scalley said. “He's physical, takes great angles … so, yeah, there's a lot to like.”
Three seasons later, Bowen will get his chance to play against USC when the Utes begin their Pac-12 schedule Sept. 20. If this season goes as Utah hopes, he’ll get to take the field Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl — or, even better, the Fiesta Bowl in the College Football Playoff. Either destination would complete the story Bowen wants to write in Utah.