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Josh Norman took the long road to Super Bowl 50

The Panthers cornerback went from being benched for his poor performance in 2013 to being recognized as one of the best players in the league in 2015.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman has become a household name, grabbing headlines all season as a dynamic, quotable star for the best team in the NFL. Norman has developed into a shutdown corner, but his biggest test awaits him as the Panthers prepare to take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

Norman's performance this season stood out, even on a defense stacked with other first-team All-Pro talent. His perspective on the game -- that the things he fights to earn mean so much more than anything that could be handed to him -- helped propel his team to 15 regular season wins, a NFC Championship and a Super Bowl berth. But there was a time when Norman's coaches questioned whether he'd reach his full potential.

Norman was always willing to work hard to hone his craft. But he came from a small college program where he faced off against talent that had no shot of making it in the NFL, and there was a gap in skill and technique that Norman needed to learn to bridge. Norman was prone to giving up big plays, and a lack of discipline on the field nearly derailed his pro career.

He was a standout at Coastal Carolina almost from the moment he set foot on the field. Norman's first college interception came in his very first start for the Chanticleers as a walk-on freshman, and he finished the season with nine pass deflections and two interceptions. When he returned to the Chanticleers as a sophomore, he did so with a scholarship.

As the 2012 NFL Draft loomed, Norman had compiled a football resume that was impressive enough for pro teams to take notice despite coming from a FCS program.

Rough transition to the NFL

Despite impressive size, versatility and a high ceiling, teams were concerned about Norman's ability to read routes and adapt to the level of competition he would face in the pros. The Panthers selected Norman with a fifth-round pick, which now looks like a steal. But early in his career it was uncertain whether he'd even stick in Carolina.

The transition to the NFL wasn't easy for Norman, who had been easily the best player on his college team and seemed to feel a burden to make every play.

Norman started 12 games in his rookie season and finished the year with one interception and seven passes defensed. Head coach Ron Rivera described Norman's playing style as "high risk, high reward" in a conversation with Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei.

The team made the decision to move Norman into the nickelback role in his second season, with the expectation that his closing speed and ball skills would serve him well in that position. In the second game of the 2013 season, with the Panthers' defense just needing to hold on to a lead over the Buffalo Bills for six seconds, Norman ignored a teammate's instruction to cover Stevie Johnson. Johnson scored the game-winning touchdown.

The lack of discipline and the ways it cost his team, led to Rivera making the decision to de-emphasize Norman's role in the defense and eventually phase him out completely. He was a healthy scratch for the last nine games that season.

Rivera, however, still saw the potential in Norman and believed he could be coached into greatness.

"People would say, 'Maybe it's time you cut him.' But you don't cut someone with that talent," Rivera said to Pompei. "You keep working with them. It was just a matter of getting him to do things our way, the right way, within the scheme."

Time for an intervention

Rivera didn't want to break Norman, but there were times that he feared Norman's spirit was broken by the correction he was getting from the coaching staff.

"He was kind of flopping around," Rivera said. "You could see it in his eyes. I think it hurt him. He was a little bit detached."

What Norman needed more than anything was someone who could help him find balance between the confidence and swagger he played with and the discipline he needed to succeed as a pro. Enter Panthers defensive backs coach Steve Wilks.

Wilks worked to expand Norman's understanding of the mental aspect of playing cornerback at the NFL level. Norman had to learn what to anticipate from offenses. He had to learn to be disciplined with his eyes as the play unfolded. At Coastal Carolina, Norman was able to simply rely on his athleticism and instincts. With the Panthers, he had to develop into a more complete player. Wilks saw his efforts pay off with Norman.

"He's gotten to the point where he understands the details of the game," Wilks told Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. "He's been a student of the game. He's letting the game come to him. He's not trying to do things outside the defense, and it's really showing in his play."

Norman also needed to mature, and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson saw an opportunity where he could help the young corner develop on and off the field.

Richardson's personal investment in Norman's future made a significant impression.

"When your owner is your personal coach, you never want to let that guy down," Norman told Pompei. "You want to push yourself to the extreme."

Norman put in the work to improve, as well. He told the Atlanta media this season that he cherishes his accomplishments because they're the result of the work he put in to improve.

"You want to go into it not somebody handing you something, but you want somebody to work at it, and once you work at it, there's nothing greater in life than when you work and then you become successful, because you cherish it more. You value it more," Norman said.

The results of Wilks' and Richardson's involvement, as well as Norman's hard work, spoke for themselves. After being benched in 2013, Norman started 10 games in 2014, finishing the season with 11 passes defensed, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Becoming a top cornerback

Norman's maturation and his performance during the 2014 season set high expectations for 2015.

Norman hit the ground running when the regular season began. The Panthers' Week 1 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars set the tone for the way Norman would perform throughout the season. In that win, Norman jumped a route, picked off Blake Bortles and returned the interception 30 yards for a touchdown. He also had two pass deflections and a forced fumble against Jacksonville.

That game was par for the course for Norman in 2015. He finished the regular season with four interceptions and 18 passes defensed, and he returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Although he didn't lead the league in interceptions, quarterbacks threw his way less and less as the season went on.

Tasked with covering top receivers like Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham, Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins in 2015, Norman allowed just 55 completions on 105 targets all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Quarterbacks didn't have much luck have much luck throwing toward his side of the field:

But Norman doesn't shy away from competition. He embraces it.

"It's one of those things where you want a great battle," Norman said. "You don't want to go out there and feel like you're wasting your time on the football field or you're just out there kicking dirt. You want to be actually involved in the game."

Capping off a breakout season

Even though he's been targeted just nine times total in the playoffs, Norman was heavily involved in the Panthers' march to the Super Bowl. As the Panthers prepared to take on the Seattle Seahawks, the team that represented the NFC in the last two Super Bowls, Norman's mind set was that the Panthers had to beat the best if they wanted to be the best.

Norman had four solo tackles and a sack on Russell Wilson, and the defense shut out the Seahawks in the first half.

In the NFC Championship, the Panthers' defense dominated the Cardinals, finishing the day with seven takeaways in a 49-15 drubbing. Norman was only targeted by Carson Palmer five times, but had two pass deflections and allowed just two completions for 21 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. The Cardinals' offense was prolific during the regular season, averaging a league-best 408.3 offensive yards per game. The Carolina defense held Arizona to just 295 total yards.

After coming up with six interceptions against the Seahawks and the Cardinals in the postseason, the Panthers' secondary has lived up to its nickname, Thieves Ave. Now, they prepare to face a Broncos team that isn't as fearsome as it once was. Peyton Manning spent most of the season sidelined due to injury, and he threw for just 176 yards against the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Denver has Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, but Norman and Co. have proven they can keep up with the league's top receiving talent.

Norman's efforts throughout the 2015 season were recognized with his first Pro Bowl selection and a first team All-Pro nod. The Pro Football Writers of America named Norman a Co-Most Improved Player of the Year alongside Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins.

He's not the same young man who walked on at Coastal Carolina. He's definitely not the young corner whose lack of disciplined technique got him benched in his second season in Carolina. So, who is Norman today?

He told the media in December that he's the No. 1 corner in the league, and his 2015 performance makes a strong case in support of it. If Norman comes ready to play -- as he has all season -- in the biggest game of his life, then he could also soon describe himself as a Super Bowl winner.