ORONO – Montell Owens beamed as he jogged off the practice field Thursday morning at the University of Maine.
He has plenty to smile about these days.
Owens, who spent his first three seasons in the shadow of All-Atlantic 10 tailback Marcus Williams, has stepped out into the spotlight. He is the player upon whom the Black Bears will rely this season to set the tone for their running game.
Owens, a 5-foot-10, 215-pounder from Wilmington, Del., is excited to finally have the chance to prove himself. The first opportunity comes in eight days when UMaine opens the season against perennial Division I-A power Nebraska.
“It’s my senior year. Now it’s my turn, so I have to step up and perform,” Owens said. “I’m ready for the job.”
Owens has exhibited tremendous emotion and energy during preseason camp as he prepares to shoulder the bulk of the Bears’ running load.
“He’s a hungry man right now,” said UMaine associate head coach and offensive coordinator Bobby Wilder. “He wants very much to be in the role that Marcus was. He’s worked as hard as anybody I’ve seen that’s been here in the offseason.”
Owens appeared in nine games last season, including one start at fullback. The highlight of his season was an eight-carry, 28-yard effort in UMaine’s upset victory at Division I-A Mississippi State.
“You go back and look at the touchdown drive that won the football game,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “Marcus Williams was out. Montell Owens ran the ball four times on that drive and every carry was four yards or better. It blended in with our passing game enough for us to go win a big football game.”
Owens is a bit smaller, but a little faster, than his predecessor. He hopes to provide the Bears with a potent combination of speed and power.
“He’s got a ton of speed, so you’re going to see a little bit less of the bowling ball effect that you saw with Marcus and a little bit more of the straight-out explosiveness that Montell brings,” said junior quarterback Ron Whitcomb.
Cosgrove has been especially pleased with the way the offensive unit has fed off Owens’ inspired play during camp.
“He’s got the ability to be very productive and very much a charismatic kind of leader for us as a tailback,” Cosgrove said.
Owens played in 10 games as a true freshman in 2002, mostly on special teams. He averaged 17.8 yards on kickoff returns.
In 2003, he saw limited action on returns and as the backup tailback. Last fall, Owens logged 49 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite having logged only 74 career carries, Owens’ presence is critical for the Bears as his backups are inexperienced and a bit banged up.
Sophomore Keien Williams, who saw spot time a year ago, has been sidelined most of training camp with injuries to a knee and a finger. Behind him is redshirt freshman Teron Allen, who had a productive spring but has been slowed this month by a hamstring injury.
Those injuries have thrust freshman Jerron Pearson into the backup role.
Pearson, a 5-10, 180-pounder from Elkridge, Md., has logged a lot of reps in preparation for what could be his collegiate debut at Nebraska next week.
“Pearson’s the guy right now,” Cosgrove said. “He gets a shot and he’s been really good for us.”
Pearson is a smaller back who uses his speed and quick feet to maneuver through the defense.
UMaine volleyball opens today
The University of Maine volleyball team will open its 2005 season today as it hosts the ASICS Invitational at Memorial Gym in Orono.
Coach Lynn Atherley’s squad, which went 17-11 last season, debuts with a 2:30 p.m. match against the University of Rhode Island. On Saturday, the Black Bears take on Fairfield at 11 a.m. and Montana at 6 p.m.
UMaine returns six letterwinners from last season’s team and was picked to finish second in the America East preseason coaches poll.
Senior middle blocker Shannan Fotter and senior outside hitter Kaili Jordan, both all-league, first-team picks last season, headline the team.