Owens Already Missed by Dawgs

ATHENS – In the 24 hours after Jeff Owens' season ended with a knee injury in the first quarter of Georgia's first game of the year, his teammates were already thinking of ways to honor him.

He had received phone calls from former Bulldogs Fernando Velasco and Kregg Lumpkin. Even former Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice, who met Owens during a recruiting visit years ago, called to offer his condolences.

The reaction is a tribute to how important Owens is to Georgia -- not simply on the defensive line, but in the locker room and beyond.

"I'm just going to miss his spirit," senior Corvey Irvin said. "Jeff is a loud-talking guy. He's funny. He makes you laugh. When we're on the road together, when we're in the hotel together, Jeff's not going to be around. And you can't replace Jeff with nobody else."

Owens said he didn't know the severity of the injury at first, but an MRI revealed the tear, and doctors informed him he wouldn't be back this season. His surgery is scheduled for Sept. 9, but the recovery process started as soon as he spoke to his teammates.

Head coach Mark Richt offered his support during halftime of Saturday's game, and the well wishes from teammates have been unending since. Owens' fellow defensive linemen are considering wearing his number throughout the season – each choosing a game to play in Owens' honor. Even defensive back Ramarcus Brown offered to switch to Owens' No. 95.

"I have a lot of guys backing me up and just trying to keep me positive," Owens said. "The storm's going to be over, I've just got to weather the storm."

So, too, do the Bulldogs.

Owens was the senior leader of the defensive line, an NFL-caliber player who turned down a chance to enter the draft after his junior season.

Without him, Irvin will be counted on to step into the starting job alongside junior Geno Atkins. Irvin responded Saturday by leading the Bulldogs in tackles and recording a sack.

"It's not the NFL where we can trade and bring guys in, so somebody's going to have to step up and be the man," Irvin said. "(Owens is) the man, he's a leader, but we can't dwell on that. We've got to come out and get better."

DeAngelo Tyson, Ricardo Crawford, Brandon Wood and Kade Weston will fill out the defensive tackle rotation in Owens' absence, Richt said. Weston, however, will miss this week's game against Central Michigan as he recovers from his own knee injury.

"They're still great," Owens said of his fellow linemen. "I was just a small piece of the pie. They're way bigger than me, and they're going to blow up this season."

It's that unyielding support that has endeared Owens to his teammates so much over the past four years. He acted as a role model to Irvin and Atkins, offering advice, imparting wisdom and helping them through their own rough patches.

So while Owens is looking at the battle he faces to get back on the field, it's hard for his teammates not to dwell on what they've lost.

"With Jeff going down, it hurt me to my heart," Irvin said. "All day (Sunday), I thought about Jeff. He's out for the season. Saturday, I just said, with Jeff gone, I'm going to play this for Jeff. I'm going to play like it's his last one."

This season, however, may not be Owens' last one.

Owens is eligible to redshirt this year, preserving another season of eligibility and allowing him to return to the defense in 2009. He said he hasn't come to any definite decision on that yet, preferring to focus in healing, but Atkins seemed certain he would team up with Owens again.

"He's a little down, but he's not letting the injury get him down," Atkins said. "He'll be back next year to help us out."

In the meantime, Owens plans to spend as much time cheering his teammates on as possible. Although he won't be on the field or on the road with them, he's still expected to be a vocal leader.

"Even though he won't be able to travel with us, I'm sure he'll give us a call and tell us what we need to work on," Atkins said.

While Owens plans to do all he can to help his team from the sideline, he's also looking at the injury as a chance to improve himself.

When Richt met with him at halftime Saturday, Owens told his coach he'd use the injury as motivation if he missed the season. The hard times, he said, would make him stronger.

When the news came, Owens said he didn't waver from that perspective.

"It's just a little bump in the road," he said. "You've always got to face adversity to be the best, and this is my real, true, big test of adversity at Georgia, so I'm going to come back and stay positive."

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