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The evolution of Penn State's Navorro Bowman

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Navorro Bowman took the express lane to stardom last season, rapidly producing a performance that stacked up with those of Penn State's other great linebackers, both past and present.

Bowman recorded team highs in total tackles (106) and tackles for loss (16.5) last season. He added an interception, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and six pass deflections. He was a consensus pick for first-team All-Big Ten honors. And he did it all without starting in Penn State's first three games.

Judging by the numbers alone, Bowman could be called an overnight success. But the label doesn't apply here. Bowman's career at Penn State has been a process, with seemingly every step challenged by a trap or an obstacle.

"I took my time to learn how to walk," Bowman said. "I crawled. Now I'm standing up and willing to help another teammate out. We all have got to wait our turn."

Bowman's turn seemingly has arrived at Penn State, as he helps lead the Nittany Lions in their quest for back-to-back Big Ten championships this season.

He'll form one of the nation's top linebacker tandems with Sean Lee, who returns to the field from a torn ACL. He'll don the same No. 11 jersey worn by close friend and former Penn State All-American linebacker LaVar Arrington, who asked Bowman to wear his number. Another All-Big Ten caliber season will put Bowman on the NFL radar, giving him a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.

The future looks bright for Bowman, but the 6-foot-1, 230-pound junior has learned not to look too far in the distance.

"The things that came into my life in the past year or two, who knew that they would?" he said. "I just thank God for keeping his hand on me and guiding me through this."

Bowman has encountered a series of hurdles at Penn State, both of his own doing and beyond his control.

In November 2007, he was charged with felony assault following an on-campus fight and subsequently was suspended from the team for the regular-season finale, the Alamo Bowl and all of spring practice. Bowman eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, received a year's probation and returned to the team last summer.

Then in April, he had his probation revoked and reset for another year after admitting to smoking marijuana. A judge told Bowman any further probation violation would result in six months of jail time.

In between legal issues, Bowman dealt with two major tragedies. His father, Hillard, died unexpectedly from complications from a blood clot in June 2008. Then, the day before Bowman took the field in the Rose Bowl against USC, his high school coach, Nick Lynch, was killed in a car accident.

"Losing my father and then losing my coach, it was two big boulders that landed on me," Bowman said. "I'm not really relieved from everything. It's still a struggle every day, trying to do what I'm here to do. Football has been the way out for me, and I'm blessed to have the gift that I have."

Bowman continues to deal with issues back home in Maryland, and the strain has taken a toll. And while he's on thin ice at Penn State, his teammates aren't concerned about his focus.

"Navorro Bowman is a great kid, a great football player," Lee said this spring. "He's had tough times when it comes to his family, but he battled though it and he's going to continue to battle through it. He's going to be ready to go next year."

Football has been the easy part for Bowman, who blends speed and smarts to consistently make plays. After playing sporadically before his suspension in 2007, Bowman's biggest challenge last fall was stamina.

He used the first few games to build his endurance conditioning level to play entire games. Given the starting nod in Week 4 against Temple, Bowman broke out with 11 tackles, including five for loss and three sacks, as well as an interception and a forced fumble.

"I've always known I could play with these guys and at this level," he said. "The object of becoming a good defensive player is really just taking care of your responsibility and finding the ball. That's what I do -- diagnose a play pretty fast. That's why I'm able to get to the ball as fast as I am."

Bowman recorded eight or more tackles in nine games. He was arguably the lone bright spot for Penn State's defense in the Rose Bowl, racking up five tackles for loss, including a sack.

"I wasn't surprised," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said of Bowman's season. "He's got some great athleticism. He's got good instincts for the ball, he's good football player. He's got some big-time skills."

Bowman added a few pounds during the offseason as well as several new elements to his game. He took on a greater leadership role during spring practice, helping the younger linebackers who will play behind him.

Playing alongside Lee is the biggest draw for Bowman heading into the fall. They shared the field at times in 2007, but never while both were in featured roles.

"Throughout the scout team years, I just always wanted to play with Sean," Bowman said. "Dan [Connor] and Paul [Posluszny] were those older guys, but Sean was the guy who I knew I was going to play with a lot and had a chance to really learn from. And that time is here.

"I have an imagination of how it's going to be. It's going to be fundamentally sound, a lot of unmissed tackles, things like that. It's going to be Linebacker U, really what we're known for."