Rookie linebacker NaVorro Bowman wasn’t expected to play a major role in the team’s defense early on in training camp.
The linebacker group has been hit with the injury bug. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is out with lacerated kidneys, linebacker Travis LaBoy is out with a concussion and backup linebacker Scott McKillop tore his ACL and patellar last week. With McKillop out for the year, Bowman became the focus of attention.
Bowman, the team’s third round selection from Penn State, has been optimistic of the team’s goals since entering camp.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bowman said of the team’s progress. “All in all, camp is going well. Our goal is to get better every single day.”
Now Bowman will have to be one of the key factors in helping the defense reach their goals. In losing McKillop, the team’s leading tackler on special teams last season, Bowman knows that he has to take this opportunity to learn from the veterans ahead of him in the depth chart in his battle to secure a backup role.
“Whether it’s on the field or off the field, they’re trying to help us young guys out as much as they can,” said Bowman of his experience with veterans like Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis. “When it comes to learning the playbook and things like that, you kind of have to kind of sit back and watch the veterans and see what they do and how they practice.”
So far during training camp, Bowman is one of the draft picks that have stood out and has received increased playing time. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has been pleased with Bowman’s progress during camp.
“He’s doing well,” said Manusky. “He’s picking up the calls, he understands it. He knows his role right now is to pick up those calls and get it done. From a physical standpoint, he’s been pretty physical upfront. He can strike, he can bend, and he’s got good movement skills inside. So, I’m excited about the young gentleman.”
With Spikes’ contract ending at this season, the 49ers were developing McKillop as a potential replacement. With McKillop out for the year, Bowman will have a lot of responsibilities at the TED position. Manusky confirmed that Bowman will focus on the TED linebacker position during camp before trying to learn the other middle linebacker position (MIKE).
“For young guys like that, you want them to just learn one position, and then after he’s been in the league for a little bit, he can learn both,” Manusky explained.
It may seem that the pressure for Bowman to succeed so early into camp could be overwhelming, but the linebacker has maintained a positive outlook on the entire situation. As he battles veteran Matt Wilhelm for the backup TED linebacker position, Bowman believes that the transition from playing college ball at Penn State to the practices in the NFL has been mostly smooth.
“My transition is coming along well; it’s just the little things,” Bowman said after a practice last week. “I played a 4-3 defense in college, so getting used to 3-4 and not having to be as fast as I was in college; it’s kind of a challenge. But when I come out here and work every single day, I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it and start playing the game the way I want to.”
Early on during OTAs, Bowman was clearly very raw at his position. On a few occasions, Bowman wouldn’t be able to catch up with receivers moving through the middle. Those plays turned into big gains.
But as the weeks continued on, Bowman started to catch on to the schemes of the defense. During the off-season, Bowman spent his entire July in Santa Clara working on his craft. The extra time spent practicing has benefited the linebacker.
“Coaches got to see how hard I worked and they got to teach me a few things that they maybe wouldn’t have gotten to teach me if I went home,” he said. “It’s not mandatory, but you want to be out here learning as much as you can and show that you want to be a part of it.”
Manusky said that the learning curve for Bowman isn’t as steep as it may seem. With Bowman learning the defense during OTAs, mini-camp and training camp, Manusky expects Bowman to continue learning as much as he can with all the time he’s spent with the team. Also, there is an expectation to play at a strong, physical level.
“At this level, you’ve got a lot more technique and a lot more physicality,” Bowman said. “You have to figure out the technique the coaches want you to do and perform well.”
Despite all that has gone on throughout the entire off-season, Bowman has continued to play with enthusiasm and has looked to be a very smart draft pick by the 49ers. When asked about his goals for training camp, Bowman kept the team’s goal of making the playoff as the top priority.
“(I want) to get better and make the team and show coaches that I can contribute to get to the playoffs,” Bowman said.
So far, the rookie has shown his coaches that he is very capable of being an important piece to the team’s quest to make the playoffs. Now it’s about taking the success from the practice field and turning those into victories on the field on Sundays.
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