ATHENS, Ga. — As Mark Richt was walking off Georgia’s practice field Thursday, recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner informed the head coach that the Bulldogs had landed a big commitment for next season.
Richt was intrigued, wondering who might be added to next year’s incoming freshman class. Garner’s answer, however, was senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens.
“We were all fired up because he already knows the plays,” Richt said.
Owens was pegged to be one of Georgia’s defensive leaders this season, but he tore ligaments in his right knee in the Bulldogs’ first game of the season. Although he was eligible for a medical redshirt, he had wavered on whether he would return for a second senior season or enter the NFL draft.
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After some careful deliberation, however, Owens said he couldn’t pass up a chance to spend another season in Athens and make up for some lost time.
“One more year won’t hurt me. I love college, and I’m glad to be here,” Owens said. “I didn’t have a senior year like I wanted. We lost to (Georgia) Tech, and I can’t leave losing to Tech. I’ve got to get revenge on that.”
Just as important as turning in a more memorable final act at Georgia, Owens wanted to make sure his knee was fully healed before testing it at the next level.
The defensive tackle from Sunrise, Fla. was projected as a first-day selection in the draft had he left after his junior season in 2007, when he made 27 tackles and anchored Georgia’s defensive line.
Owens chose to return to school, but on his first series of the season this year, he tore his ACL, ending his season.
While he said the knee is healing nicely, and he expects to be 100 percent healthy for the start of preseason practice, he wasn’t ready to gamble his future by jumping to the NFL without knowing how well his knee would hold up.
“You never know what could happen,” Owens said. “I could have come out this year, my knee couldn’t have been ready, and I could have gotten cut. Then it would have been over. I’ll take the safe route, come back to school, I’m graduating in May, I’ll let my knee heal, and I’ll get ready.”
While Richt was thrilled to hear the news of Owens’ return, fellow defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Kade Weston may have been even more excited at the news.
The three players are close friends, and Atkins had already decided he would return to Georgia for his senior season despite many projections that he would be a first-round draft pick if he left early.
“I know they were excited, especially Geno,” Owens said. “He’s been on me about the three amigos.”
Owens said he submitted paperwork to the NFL’s advisory board to find out where he might be selected if he entered the draft this year, but he didn’t wait until the results were in before making his decision, which he said was partially influenced by Atkins’ choice to return to school.
“It had some say so in it also, because me and Geno are really good friends,” Owens said. “But we’re going to be competing for reps next year. We’re going to have me, Geno and Kade back, all of us are going to be healthy, and it’s going to be something exciting to see next year. We’ll just dominate.”
Beyond the on-field benefit for Georgia, Owens return is a big boost for the locker-room chemistry, Richt said.
Owens has developed a reputation as a vocal leader among the defense, and while he wasn’t able to fill that role with as much zeal while recovering from knee surgery this season, Richt is excited about the prospect of having his senior leader back for another year in 2009.
“I’m very excited to get to hang around (him) another year,” Richt said. “He’s a glue guy. He’s just a guy who shows up with a great attitude every day and can lift up his teammates around him every day, and I’m sure he’ll make a bunch of great plays, too.”