Doctors gave him clearance. Coaches gave him trust. Teammates gave him support.
A year’s worth of pain gave Darrion Owens pause.
Until Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant barreled into him with a cut-block, zeroing in on the knee he shredded last year. Owens, 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, ready to stop the inside zone run, bounced off Bryant (6-5, 225) and wrapped up running back Greg “Buddy” Howell for no gain.
As the pile cleared around him, Owens got up.
“I’m good,” he thought. “I can do this.”
That play was one of many shown in the Hurricanes’ day-after meeting on Sunday, but it was the only one that drew a full ovation from players.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Owens, a junior linebacker who made his return last Saturday from a serious knee injury. After the game, Diaz called it “the coolest part” of UM’s 38-10 win.
“I was just happy to be back out there with them, but for them to clap for me, knowing they have my back just made me feel good. Sometimes when I was hurt, I didn’t feel like I was part of the team because I was in the training room and couldn’t be out here. … It just feels good, knowing for sure I’m part of the team again.”
Owens tore the ACL and menisci on either side of his right knee last Sept. 11 at FAU. After months of recovery — he was hobbled during August practices, and stood in uniform on the sideline for UM’s season-opener against Florida A&M — he returned against those same Owls. He subbed for freshman Michael Pinckney on UM’s second defensive series, where he made that all-important tackle.
He made one more stop as he played 20 of Miami’s 71 defensive snaps, most of the action coming with the Hurricanes holding a late-game lead.
Miami (2-0) will need at least that from Owens on Saturday, when it faces one of the nation’s best rushing attacks at Appalachian State (1-1). Owens is the only upperclassman and the Hurricanes’ largest linebacker, two inches taller and five pounds heavier than freshman middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman (6-1, 240).
The Mountaineers’ run game relies on senior Marcus Cox (4,336 career rushing yards, including 115 in a 20-13 overtime loss at Tennessee on Sept. 1) to find lanes behind a strong zone-blocking scheme.
“It’s the best thing they do, and they were one of the best in a country at it a year ago,” UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “They really know what they’re doing, they doctor it up a million different ways with formations and motions and heavy alignments and unbalanced alignments and so on and so forth, so that is a massive challenge for our defense. As the year unfolds it might be one of the better running attacks we go against all season.
“They’re going to run it, you’re going to stop it, and they’re going to say, ‘Stop it again.’ And it’s a battle of wills,” Diaz said. “[Cox] knows his tracks. He knows where all the cuts are. He does a great job of getting in and out of the tackle box in a hurry once he sees the hole. Bang, you’ll see him explode. He’s done it against everyone they’ve played.”
App State’s offensive line, which averages 6-4 and 306 pounds, was rated by Pro Football Focus as the No. 3 returning group in the nation. Diaz — and coach Mark Richt — each mentioned in separate interviews the first play of App State’s season-opener at Tennessee, when standout Mountaineers center Parker Collins drew a 15-yard penalty after driving defensive tackle Kendal Vickers off the field and out of bounds.
“They try to grind people into the ground,” Diaz said. “So that made a statement early on of what type of team they have.”
Diaz used either a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six) package 63 percent of the time against FAU, but it’s unlikely he would do so against a run-heavy team like App State. That means it will be more of a challenge for UM’s linebackers, such as freshmen Quarterman, Michael Pinckney (6-1, 220) and Zach McCloud (6-2, 230) to stay fresh. UM needs Owens to contribute what can. Ideally, he would play with abandon.
With last week’s hurdle cleared, he’s ready to do so.
And his teammates — some of them fighting long-term injuries themselves — know he can, too.
“For weeks now, the doctor’s been telling him, ‘Your knee is structurally sound,’” Diaz said. “It was not an issue of injuring himself further. You’ve got to be around loud noises. You’ve got to hear those collisions going on around you. You’ve got to get in some of those collisions, and know everything’s still OK.”
They played the tape in the meeting room, Diaz said, “to let them know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It seems awfully far away at times, but they trust the rehab and they all end up back.”