When Laban DeLay wants to reach through to a troubled player, he tells them to take a look at Chris Owens.
DeLay, who coaches Lamar High School in Arlington, Texas, has produced several top talents — most notably quarterback Shane Buechele, who played at Texas before starring for SMU the past two seasons. However, it’s Owens’ story that embodies the persistence the head coach tries to instill in his program.
After converting from defensive tackle early in his high school career, Owens anchored Lamar’s offensive line during his junior and senior seasons. The former Under Armour All-American signed with Alabama in 2016, choosing the Tide over Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M. From there, things have been less glamorous.
In his fifth season at Alabama, Owens has started just five games, waiting his turn amid a loaded offensive line. The 6-foot-3, 315-pounder began last season as Alabama’s starting center before being bumped from the first-team after Deonte Brown served out a four-game NCAA suspension and Landon Dickerson slid over to center. Owens was once again in line to start at center this fall until a shift later in camp saw Dickerson retake the position.
Despite the setbacks, Owens remained undeterred, shifting into whichever role his coaches called for.
“In our microwave society where kids think that they are entitled to things, Chris isn’t that way,” DeLay said. “In our program, we use Chris as an example of how you do it the right way. If you stay with it and persevere, show your grit, your time will come.”
In a time when transfers are more prevalent than ever in college football, Owens never considered a change of scenery. In fact, the veteran offensive lineman helps advocate for the opposite.
While the transfer portal is exclusive to college athletics, the constant transplanting of players has seeped down the prep level as well. DeLay says he’s had times where players have contemplating switching schools or even quitting the sport altogether after losing their roles or being called to change positions.
That’s where Owens’ story comes in handy.
And when examples aren’t enough, Lamar coaches have leaned on their former lineman to break through to younger players himself. Stephen Kelly, who coaches the offensive line at Lamar, said he turned to his former protégé two years ago when looking to convince a talented freshman defensive tackle to switch to the offensive side of the ball. The plan, as Kelly described it, was to “just step back and let Chris take the wheel.”
“I feel like Chris was able to connect with him and kind of talk with him but also talk to the whole offensive line at the same time,” Kelly said. “It actually worked out. That kid stayed and ended up being an all-district player for us as a sophomore and had another big year for us this past season as a junior.”
This week, Owens’ patience is paying off for himself.
Following Landon Dickerson’s season-ending knee injury during the SEC Championship Game, Owens now finds himself as the next man up at center for No. 1 Alabama as it enters the College Football Playoff. The fact that the Crimson Tide’s Rose Bowl matchup against Notre Dame will take place in AT&T Stadium, roughly three miles away from his old high school in Arlington, is an added bonus.
“We’re certainly excited for it,” Kelly said. “I know everyone in North Arlington is excited to see him and represent Lamar on the big stage.”
Filling in for Dickerson, a first-team All-American and finalist for both the Outland and Rimington trophies, is no small order. Neither is going up against an experienced Notre Dame front seven made up entirely of upperclassmen. However, Owens’ coaches and teammates believe his up for the task.
“This is certainly going to be a challenge, no doubt,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Monday. “But we have total confidence that Chris can go in there and get the job done because he’s a fifth-year center and he has a significant amount of experience. And he really has played a lot of football here.
“So Landon did a great job, and I don’t think you replace guys. But I think Chris certainly has the ability and the attitude and the character to get the job done for us.”
This week’s start will be Owens’ second of the season as he filled in for Evan Neal at right tackle against Arkansas earlier this month. During that game, the redshirt senior earned an 83.3 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, not allowing a sack over 31 pass-blocking snaps while helping the Tide to a 52-3 victory.
Moving inside against Notre Dame, Owens will be called on to provide more push in the run game. Dickerson was Alabama’s best run-blocker, ranking fourth nationally with a 92.8 grade according to Pro Football Focus. By contrast, Owens has registered a pedestrian 54.4 grade over 88 run-blocking snaps this season. That will need to improve against a Notre Dame defense that ranks No. 15 in the nation, allowing opponents 110.55 yards per game on the ground.
“You’re losing your best run blocker in Landon. We’ve seen what Chris Owens can contribute a pass blocker, but how confident are you that he’ll be able to provide a puss in the run game against a stout Notre Dame front seven.”
Owens is no stranger to taking on big roles in key games, especially inside of AT&T Stadium. The last time the lineman took the field in “Jerry World” came during his final high school game as Lamar took on Mansfield in the third round of the Texas 6A state playoffs.
Needing extra protection against a strong Mansfield interior front, Lamar moved Owens from right tackle to right guard, a position he had never played before.
While Lamar’s late comeback bid came up short in a 34-29 defeat, Owens helped provide time for Buchelle to throw for 328 yards and four touchdowns while setting a school record with 29 completions.
Owens will hope to end up on the winning side of the battle on Friday as Alabama and Notre Dame are set to kick off at 3 p.m. CT in the first of two College Football Playoff semifinals. If he’s able to come through for the Tide, it’ll offer another chapter in his patient road to the spotlight — one that DeLay looks forward to passing on to his future players.
“We’re awfully proud of him,” DeLays said. “It’s cool that he’s coming home, and the coaches and community are really excited to see him get this opportunity. It’s a huge testament to him and how he lives his life.”
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