Owens, Dogs return with unfinished business

Athens — It's been almost a year. Jeff Owens can hardly wait.

“I think when I get out there and hit someone, the adrenaline will be rushing,” the Georgia defensive tackle said. “I just wish I could tackle quarterbacks.”

Although quarterbacks aren’t tackled in practice — a perk of the position — Owens will find plenty of people to hit when the Bulldogs convene preseason practice this week. It’ll be his first full-contact football since he tore up his right knee in the first quarter of the first game of last season.

Owens says he is 100 percent recovered, and he personifies a theme of Georgia’s preseason: The Return Of The Injured.

By the end of last season, two dozen UGA players of varying stature on the depth chart were lost to injury, and almost all of them remained sidelined or limited in spring practice while rehabbing from a variety of knee, shoulder, hip, wrist, thumb, ankle and foot surgeries. But with just a few exceptions, all are good to go now.

Key returnees to health include offensive lineman Trinton Sturdivant, who started every game at left tackle as a freshman in 2007 but missed last season after tearing three knee ligaments in the first preseason scrimmage; offensive lineman Vince Vance, who replaced Sturdivant but went down with a knee injury himself in midseason; defensive end Rod Battle, who started every game in 2007 but was slowed and eventually sidelined by neck and shoulder injuries last year; linebacker Marcus Washington, who was a starter for much of 2007 but missed all of last season after shoulder surgery; and Owens, who had started 25 consecutive games before a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his 2008 season just as it was beginning.

“It was a tough time, having something taken away from you that you love,” Owens said last week. “But now I’m past that and looking to be successful this season.”

Owens’ plan was to be in an NFL camp, rather than on Georgia’s campus, this month. Last season was to have completed his college eligibility, and he was projected to go in the early rounds of the NFL draft. But knee injuries have a way of altering athletes’ best-laid plans.

Owens’ injury, which came just eight plays into the season, resulted in a redshirt year, which gave him the option of returning for one more collegiate season and trying to rebuild his NFL stock.

So here he’ll be Tuesday, when Georgia holds its first of 29 practices leading to the Sept. 5 opener at Oklahoma State.

Owens is in perpetual good cheer, reveling in the upside of deferring his NFL ambitions: “I love college!” Georgia expects his return to help remedy last season’s defensive doldrums.

“Jeffrey has got one of the strongest personalities and one of the most wonderful spirits on the team,” coach Mark Richt said. “We lost that leadership and spirit [when he was injured].”

Similarly, Richt looks for the return of Sturdivant and Vance to make the offensive line, which held up well last year despite injuries that forced three freshmen to start, a pillar of the team. And he looks for a healthy Battle to provide pass rush that was woefully lacking last season.

“Everybody is sort of rejuvenated and reenergized to have a clean slate again,” Battle said recently. “It was a weird situation last year, all the injuries.”

The injuries affected the team in myriad ways, from the direct hits on key positions to the trickle-down impact on depth, to Richt’s decision to back off on full-speed tackling in practice to try to preserve the healthy bodies that remained.

Richt rues that decision, figuring it contributed to the poor tackling that fueled defensive meltdowns in games, and vows not to make that mistake again.

A few injuries will carry over into this season. Most notably, receiver Kris Durham and backup offensive lineman Tanner Strickland are out for the season after shoulder surgeries, and offensive lineman Josh Davis is out until perhaps midseason after surgery on both shoulders.

Owens, meanwhile, is eager to make up for lost time, starting this week. The reward comes Sept. 5: the chance to tackle a quarterback.