'Never Let Go'

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A cross attached to red rosary beads dangle from praying hands clutching a tattered football.

Above Carlos Ousley's favorite of 12 tattoos is the word "Never" in cursive. Below, the words "Let Go" reveal the true message.

"This shows why I didn't quit," said the 6-foot, 186-pound Ousley, raising his left shirt sleeve to show the poignant art on his biceps.

It was Arkansas teammate Steven Harris who told Ousley not to let go of his dream at a time when Ousley was second-guessing everything. His receiving total as a sophomore dropped from his freshman season, making Ousley wonder if he should simply give up.

"That kind of threw me off," Ousley said. "I thought, 'Maybe I'm not what the coaches wanted or maybe I'm in the wrong place.' I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to another school and play at that point.

"I felt like giving it up all together."

He couldn't transfer again. He already left Wake Forest after just one semester because coaches insisted his long dreadlocks be cut before he'd be allowed to play for the Demon Deacons.

"Steven broke it down to me," Ousley said. "He told me to stay positive, be patient and my time will come."

Good thing Ousley listened.

Ousley and Harris are No. 1 and No. 2 on the Hogs' receiving charts heading into today's 11 a.m. game against No. 16 Florida in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Harris, a senior, leads with 11 receptions for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns while Ousley is close behind with 9 catches for 102 yards in his junior season for a team that ranks second in Southeastern Conference passing (253.5 yards per game).

As Arkansas receivers coach James Shibest puts it, they just click.

"They're our oldest guys," said Shibest. "They're getting ready to go on a big road test, so we're just hoping their experience can help a little bit.

"When you've got guys like that, they make mistakes also, but they're a little bit more reduced so you can do more things with your offense."

It will be the first trip -- and possibly the last unless the Hogs get a bid to a Sunshine State bowl game -- for Ousley and Harris to play in their home state since high school and the duo has grabbed nearly 100 tickets for friends, family members and former coaches to watch them do it.

Being excited about football again is important for Ousley. When he contemplated hanging it up, it was Harris who reminded him just how much he loved the game.

"He came to me and he was pretty down," Harris said. "He was feeling bad about the situation up here and I told him that we were going to have to wait our turn. That's the way it is, but you get opportunities. You just have to make the most of those opportunities.

"I think he's done that and he's waited his turn. So I'm glad he's here and I know he's glad he's here.

"I'm glad he listened to me."

While watching former receivers George Wilson and Richard Smith snare more than 60 percent of the Hogs' passes last season, Ousley's numbers dropped from 3 catches for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman to 2 catches for 20 yards as a junior.

"George and Richard fell into a good situation because we didn't have as many good receivers when they were younger and they just kind of took over," Shibest said. "It happened for (Ousley) when he was a junior, but it happened for those guys a little bit earlier.

"I'm just glad he stayed around and stuck it out."

It wasn't easy, especially when minor injuries caused him to get behind in the preseason of both his freshman and junior years. He still felt healthy enough to play and couldn't understand why he wasn't getting more chances.

"I went to Steven because Steven's my buddy," Ousley said. "Since we're both from Florida, he was the only one I could really relate to when I first got here. He kept instilling in me to just be patient, that my time will come - 'Just don't stress it and remember why you started playing football in the first place.'"

When Ousley was 5, he began begging his mother to take him to football games. He wasn't yet old enough to join the league (he had to wait until he was 7), but something kept driving him to get his hands on a football.

"I don't know what I would have done without football," Ousley said. "It didn't make any sense to quit something that you love, something that you've been doing all your life.

"I just couldn't give it up."

Nicknamed 'Los' by teammates, Ousley didn't give up on tracking down tickets for this game, either. He ended up with a whopping 63 for today's game while Harris got 30, exactly the amount he needed for his friends and family members.

Harris figured less than a week ago he was going to come up short, but like Ousley did in his time of need, Harris turned to his buddy for help.

"Los got me like 8 or 10 by himself," Harris said. "In the end, I didn't think I was going to be able to get them, but he did a great job and helped me out a lot. It got kind of shuffled around and some people didn't end up going because of the traveling.

"So I ended up getting what I needed and I'm happy."

Ousley has been a ticket hound for more than a year, begging every teammate he can find for some of their allotted ones.

His lengthy list was folded up in his pocket Tuesday morning with phrases like "Big Moss plus-2" scribbled on it.

"When all the freshmen came this summer and all the new guys came in for two-a-days, I hit them up as soon as they got here," Ousley said. "People have been asking me to get them tickets for a long time. I didn't think I would be able to get as many until I realized there's not many people on our team from Florida. So I've ended up getting all I needed.

"People are still calling me for tickets, but I told them not to call me anymore because I'm turning the list in (earlier this week)."

Because their cheering section will be thicker than usual for a road game, Harris said it will be key to maintain focus, especially in Florida's rowdy Swamp.

"Going back to Florida is huge for us," Harris said. "Going back and playing in front of your family and friends, you just have to bottle that excitement up and treat it like any other game."

But it's not just another game for Harris. His former Miami (Fla.) American High teammate, Cory Bailey, starts at strong safety for Florida, giving Harris added incentive.

"I'm sure we'll have our heads on a swivel, looking around for each other out there," Harris said. "It should be a lot of fun."

Bailey almost didn't end up at Florida. During the recruiting process, he would have signed with Auburn had the Tigers offered a scholarship to Harris, his best friend at the time.

"It probably will be the most fun I'll have on a Saturday," Bailey said. "We became like family our senior year. I lived across the street from him. Whatever he needed, I'd help him out."

It's certainly not just another game for Ousley, either. He verbally committed to the Gators during his junior year at Jacksonville (Fla.) Englewood High. But when Ousley didn't qualify academically, Florida offered the scholarship to fellow Jacksonville receiver O.J. Small, who leads the Southeastern Conference in receiving.

"This is very special for me," Ousley said. "Even though it's not the same coaching staff (Steve Spurrier and company left after the 2001 season), it means a great deal to me to go back and play in The Swamp and do well."

Besides Small, Ousley knows several other Jacksonville area players on the Gators' roster.

"Some of the guys who requested tickets from me had to get on their lists," Ousley said. "One of the guys, (UF starting cornerback) Demetrice Webb, is from my hometown and he's going to be playing against me the whole time.

"He's a friend, so it's going to be a lot of fun."

Ousley and Harris are not the prototypical Florida receivers. Generously listed at 6-foot and 5-11, respectively, they're not big targets, but they consistently find ways to get open.

Harris (a sinewy 180 pounds), who runs 40 yards in 4.37 seconds, uses his speed as much as anything to beat defenders, while Ousley relies on his awareness and knowledge of the game.

"Los has great feet. He knows how to get separation and that's with a burst on the first step," said Arkansas cornerback Michael Coe, who's been trying to guard the duo in practices for three years.

"Steve will just fly by you. He can run that post route like no person I've ever seen."

True freshman Marcus Monk said it was Harris and Ousley who taught him the intricacies of playing receiver during voluntary pass skels over the summer.

"I knew pretty much everything when two-a-days started," said Monk, who already has more catches than Ousley did in his first two seasons. "I still watch them because their footwork is excellent. They really know how to work a defender and they've taught me that the receiver is always going to have the advantage because he knows what he's going to do and the defenders can only react."

Harris said he looks to Ousley for tips on routes. Ousley learned a ton while honing his skills in the summer in Jacksonville with Derrick Gaffney, the father of former Florida and current Houston Texan receiver Jabar Gaffney. Other pro, college and even some high school players take part in those twice-a-day instructional sessions that are free of charge.

"I watched everybody out there because I don't think my stuff is perfected," Harris said. "I try to learn how to do things a little bit different. If I see something that someone is doing that works, than I might try to imitate it and I catch myself doing that a lot with Carlos.

"He does some great things on the field because he's so creative. So I try to take things from him and use it.

"We work well together."

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