Injured Dawgs Look for Comebacks

ATHENS – During 11-on-11 drills last week, Jeff Owens' voice managed to drown out the commotion of coaches barking orders and players jawing at each other on the field.

Owens walked up and down the sideline – finally without a noticeable limp – throwing his arms into the air and begging his teammates for more energy.

He wanted desperately to be on the field, but his rehabilitation from a torn ACL still has a few months remaining. Instead, he was reduced to playing head cheerleader – a role he has embraced for much of the past seven months.

"I'm a hype man," Owens said. "I'm getting the defense up, getting the crowd noise, trying to rattle the quarterback and disrupt the offense. I'm the fans right now. I'm the biggest Georgia fan out there."

As cheerleading squads go, the Bulldogs have a prolific one this spring. As of Tuesday's practice, 26 of Georgia's players were unable to fully participate – up from just four this time last year.

The number of players dressed in green non-contact jerseys – the green team, as Owens calls them – dwarfs any of group of offensive linemen or defensive backs, and Georgia's coaching staff has been forced to change the way it handles the multitude of rehabbing knees, surgically-repaired shoulders and sore groins.

"They still take the time to make sure we understand what's happening, and we're not sitting there just getting weak and not doing anything," said running back Richard Samuel, who is recovering from offseason wrist surgery. "We're part of the team."

Of course, creating a team dynamic among players with such a diverse array of injuries isn't simple.

The varied injuries and timetables for return mean Georgia's trainers have their work cut out for them, but the players in green aren't lacking for attention. Some players spend the majority of practice in the weight room. Others are on the treadmill. Some are simply working on essential rehabilitation.

"We've just tried to specialize each injured players practice time to do what's most important for him," head coach Mark Richt said. "We're trying to maximize every minute those guys are here and we're making it as tough as we can for those guys who are able to work."

Regardless of the schedule, Georgia's green team isn't getting any time off. By the time his teammates are ready to hit the showers, defensive end Cornelius Washington said he has worked up as much of a sweat as he did during any of the practices he participated in before hurting his shoulder last season.

"It's harder in a sense to me because you're all the time working one body part," Washington said. "Whenever you have an injury, you don't have as many things left to work out. Most of the time you're working one thing, and that gets tiring after a while."

It's true that rehab can become a bit monotonous, but the Bulldogs' training staff has done its best to spice things up for the green team.

During non-contact drills, the players who are closest to returning to action are participating alongside their healthy teammates. Even during more physical portions of practice, the injured players are watching the positional drills from the sidelines. And in the training room, the staff tries to remember that variety is an essential part of motivation for the players who need a little extra pick-me-up from time to time.

"Every day I'm asking the coaches what's up for today because you never know what to expect," said tight end Bruce Figgins, who underwent shoulder surgery in January.

Of course, that doesn't mean that its smooth sailing for everyone in a green jersey.

Fighting back from a severe injury is always tough, but spring practice serves as a particularly vivid reminder of how far away their goals might be.

Washington calls it football withdrawals. Seeing their teammates in action is tough, particularly when progress in the trainer's room seems to move at a snail's pace.

"Some guys get down on themselves," Owens said. "They see themselves and they can't really do too much. You get frustrated just watching all the time. You want to be out there in the action, out there with your brothers, hitting."

That's where the increased attention from the coaches – not to mention the cheerleading from Owens – really comes into play.

Georgia's staff has specific plans for each player, and each player has a specific goal for himself. By June, Richt said he expects nearly every member of the green team to be ready to return to action.

From their perch along the sideline, taking in the sights and sounds of a spring practice session they're only tangentially a part of, that goal can seem a long way away. In the meantime, Figgins said, each member of the green team is doing his best to focus on the journey, not the destination.

"I ask myself after practice, did I get myself better?" Figgins said. "That's what we're striving for – each person in the green jersey."

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