James Owens was looking forward to the 2011-12 season at Florida A&M, until a setback forced him to miss the entire year. Now a redshirt junior, the running back from Apopka, Fla., was ruled academically ineligible, which forced him to put his athletic goals -- and NFL dreams -- on hold.
“Everything was going good, then I was declared ineligible for one year due to grades, so I had to bounce back from that,” said the 21-year-old Owens, a criminal justice major whose career goals also include starting an after-school and summer program for young people.
Setbacks aren’t new territory for Owens. While poised to have a strong season for the Rattlers this year, he’s also focused on his other priority: 1-year-old son Jaden.
“It can be very difficult at times, but he’s a blessing to have … seeing his face every day,” Owens said. “He lets me know I have to grind harder and harder to make sure he had things that I couldn’t [have] growing up.”
At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Owens has been timed at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He models his game after speedy running backs like Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller and Jamaal Charles. It’s that kind of skill set that he hopes first-year coach Earl Holmes, who replaced legend Joe Taylor, will notice and make use of.
“Me and Coach Taylor had a pretty good relationship, but I feel Coach Holmes is a great fit for us because he’s a player’s coach,” Owens said. “He has set high expectations on us because he sees our potential as a team, and he wants to restore that pride in the program. I’m looking to be one of the leaders in the FCS in rushing, and I’m working hard to make sure I get there.”
Like Owens, FAMU is looking for a breakout year after going 4-7 last season. It all starts on Sept. 1, when FAMU faces Mississippi Valley State in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney. The game will be played at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, near Owens’ hometown.
Owens sees an opportunity to emerge as the unquestioned starter in the backfield this season. As a freshman in 2010, he rushed for 370 yards on just 65 carries. Despite limited touches, he also led the team in all-purpose yards, with 1,415 (including 904 yards as a kick returner).
Holmes knows what he has in Owens, and has high expectations.
“James played a lot for us [as a sophomore] and was very productive,” Holmes said. “A very crafty kid in space, [he] can make you miss, can win his one-on-ones and is one of the fastest guys on the team.”
Getting to this point has been a series of twists and turns for Owens, but he has no regrets.
“I was originally supposed to go to Florida International, but I came to Florida A&M and earned my spot as a walk-on,” Owens said. “I really didn’t know where I was going to go, but I decided to apply for FAMU, and when I got accepted I decided I would walk on and I made my name from there. So I guess it’s a funny story of how I got here.”
Owens is ready to shine and always points to his first game at FAMU as his inspiration.
“It was my first college start against Hampton,” he recalls. “They were projected to be division winners that year. I came in with the mindset to leave everything I had on the field. I finished with 11 carries, 295 all-purpose yards and three TDs.”
Jason Joseph is a junior at Florida A&M University, majoring in broadcast journalism.