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Editor’s note: HBCU’s are an integral part of black culture. This it the first in a series of occasional features about HBCU football written by HBCU students.

By Jason Joseph

James Owens was looking forward to the 2011-2012 season, 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,” says Owens, 21, a criminal justice major whose career goals 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: one-year-old son Jaden. “It can be very difficult at times, but he’s a blessing to have … seeing his face every day,” says Owens. “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 5’9”, 185 pounds (with a 4.29 in the 40-yard dash), Owens models his game after such speedy running backs as Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller and Jamaal Charles. It’s that kind of skillset 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 says. “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, 4-7 last season, is looking for a breakout year. 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 sophomore, 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. “Jason played a lot for us [as a sophomore] and was very productive,” Holmes says. “A very crafty kid in space, 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 says. “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 says. “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 3 TDs.”

Perhaps his stats on Sept. 1 will be just as impressive.

Jason Joseph is a junior at Florida A&M University, majoring in broadcast journalism.