ATHENS, Ga. — During 11-on-11 drills last week, Jeff Owens’ voice managed to drown out the commotion of coaches barking orders and players jawing on the field. Owens walked the sideline — finally without a noticeable limp — throwing his arms into the air and urging his teammates to generate more energy.
He wanted desperately to be on the field, but his rehabilitation from a torn knee ligament still has a few months remaining. Instead, he was reduced to playing 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 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 no-contact jerseys — the green team, as Owens calls them — dwarfs any 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.”
The variety of injuries and different 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,” 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 time off. By the time his teammates are ready to shower, defensive end Cornelius Washington said he has sweated as much 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.”
Rehab can become monotonous, but the Bulldogs’ training staff tries to spice it up.
During no-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.
“Every day I’m asking the coaches what’s up for today because you never know what to expect,” said tight end Bruce Figgins (Shaw High), who underwent shoulder surgery in January.
But it isn’t smooth for everyone in a green jersey. Spring practice reminds them how far away their goals might be. Washington calls it football withdrawal.
“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.”
Meanwhile, Figgins said, each member of the green team is tries 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.”