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Watching Chad Owens and his kick return wizardry over the last two years has provided ample proof that he has the skills to negotiate heavy traffic and make people miss, in tight.
More than a handful of observers have wondered what those skills might look like if he were catching passes from the slot, as opposed to wide receiver, the position at which he was principally employed by the Toronto Argonauts in 2011.
If you were among those who wondered, wonder no more.
Heading into the second week of training camp, Owens continues to work on his moves from inside as opposed to outside, shifted to the slotback spot by head coach Scott Milanovich. So far, so good, according to the man who is also the Argos’ offensive coordinator.
“He’s looked great,” began Milanovich, shortly after the Argos finished up practice on a steamy late spring Monday morning.
Great, yes, but with room for improvement, as The Flyin’ Hawaiian makes the adjustment to a new position in a new offence. Not that the traffic inside is a bother for Owens, who’d played slot an awful lot in college and feels just fine a little closer to the quarterback.
“Just because of my size (5′ 8″, 180 lbs) it just seems that it makes more sense,” Owens said of the move from wide receiver. “I’m happy that I’m being given an opportunity to compete at the slot and I just feel so much more comfortable there. I feel at home. I’m excited.”
Owens’ ability to duck, dart, take a hit and spin off it on kick returns is expected to help him excel at the slot. Being afforded the luxury of a running start or ‘waggle’ as opposed to the static positioning of a wide out might just give him an extra edge that he can use to his advantage as well.
“You’ve got to take advantage of the waggle,” Owens explained. “It’s like being in the open field on a punt return. You make the defender miss. In this case you do that and then get into your route.”
Natural abilities are necessary, but both Milanovich and Owens know it will take more than just those for the 3rd year Argo to be successful in this new offence led by Ricky Ray. It’s a game of condensed formations and, perhaps more importantly, clockwork timing. Which leads Milanovich to the thing he wants Owens to improve.
“Chad just needs to discipline himself to get…” the coach paused. “He’s so quick. Sometimes he’ll break a route short and the quarterback’s not ready to throw. He just needs to work on disciplining himself to get to the proper depths and landmarks on the field. But I think he’s looked excellent,” added Milanovich.
“He’s been coached hard on it and he’s getting better at it. It’s a very detailed offence and it’s not okay to be three yards from the tackle when you’re supposed to be five. Because all of those things affect Ricky’s timing.”
There is no doubt that message has been communicated to Owens, nor is there any that it has been received. Moments after I spoke with Milanovich, I walked some 20 yards across the field to a waiting Owens, and asked him what he needs to improve.
“I’m working on being disciplined in my depths,” he offered. “We all have our landmarks on the field. It’s all discipline. That’s what it comes down to.”
Asked to expand on just what that means, he explains:
“It’s all timing. Being in the right place at the right time for Ricky. If your route’s a twelve (yarder) you’ve go to be at twelve. I fell victim to that. If I’m at ten, I’m open. But Ricky’s not quite ready to throw the ball. That would give the defensive back a chance to recover.”
He smiles, and adds:
“When I do it right, it’s beautiful.”
Milanovich says he sees no reason why Owens won’t remain at slotback this season, although he does add that you won’t always see him at the inside receiver position.
“I don’t anticipate that changing but the way we run our offence, even if he’s technically a starter at slotback, on the next play he could be the split end. All our guys basically have to know every position. Based on the play and how we want to attack and who we want to attack, they have to be able to move around.”
Interior routes, exterior routes. Just different runways, is all. In the end, Milanovich feels the Flyin’ Hawaiian would lift off in any scheme.
“I don’t know that it matters what offence he’s in. A guy that’s got his ability and quickness and toughness is probably going to excel in any offence.”
THE EXTRA POINT
Owens has his receiving goals set high for this season. After hauling in 70 passes for 722 yards in 2011, he wants to hit a magic number in 2012.
“I’d like to see myself get a thousand yards receiving. That’s an individual goal and individual success can help lead to some team success. I want to be a thousand yard receiver and do my thing on special teams.”
His thing on special teams helped power Owens to 3,345 combined yards last season, making him the first in pro football to ever amass at least 3,000 in consecutive seasons.
“If I can get four thousand yards, I’m gonna try to get four thousand yards. I’m just trying to get as much as I can for my team.”
The CFL record for combined yards in a single season (3,840) was set by Pinball Clemons in 1997.