What makes Jody Owens such a valuable asset to Montana State’s operation?
Take your pick -- speed, strength, tenacity, a fierce competitive edge and a resolute willingness to lead.
It’s a diverse combination of attributes which can never be taught or replicated on the field. It’s what separates the senior outside linebacker from so many of his peers.
But it wasn’t always that way.
When he came to Bozeman from Mesquite, Texas, in 2008 as a member of coach Rob Ash’s first recruiting class, Owens clung to a hard-line, individualistic philosophy that overshadowed his built-in leadership traits.
As Ash tells it, Owens’ metamorphosis into a team-first player was borne out of an intense rivalry with another future star, MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee.
“Jody had been here for a year, and all of the sudden this freshman quarterback comes in who was very good and very talented,” said Ash, the Cats’ sixth-year coach. “But Jody was the one guy who always stood up to DeNarius and wanted the defense to shut him down.
“From the beginning, the competition between Jody and DeNarius was awesome to watch, because each guy would increase their level. Jody was not going to back down from this youngster, and the other guys followed suit.”
Ever since, Owens has been able to integrate his immense talent with a capacity to command and influence the Bobcats’ defense to play for each other as one.
Owens’ contribution to Montana State’s program can be measured in so many ways.
Statistically, Owens has been consistent throughout the last four seasons. He truly came of age as a junior last year when he finished with 105 tackles, five sacks and a Big Sky Conference-best 17 tackles for loss.
He’s been just as solid as a senior, with 90 tackles, four sacks and 12 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Owens gained the respect of opposing coaches in the Big Sky as a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection in each of the last two years. He was voted as the league’s defensive player of the year this season.
A two-time All-American, Owens has been one of the most important pieces of the greatest three-year run in MSU history. Since 2010, the Bobcats have gone 30-7 and have won shares of three straight league titles.
The Cats are currently in the middle of their third consecutive FCS playoff appearance. Third-seeded MSU (11-1) hosts Sam Houston State (9-3) on Friday at 6 p.m. in a highly anticipated quarterfinal game.
But if you ask Owens, the No. 1 contribution he’s made in Bozeman is greater than any award or any numbers calculated on paper.
“Leadership,” Owens said. “Ever since high school, my coaches always said guys would follow me. I just didn’t know what that meant until I got here. But now I know what a leader does, which is set an example for everyone to follow. That’s the biggest thing.”
For as good as Owens has been, he wasn’t highly recruited out of John Horn High School in Mesquite. A number of FCS schools in Texas showed some interest, but Owens was pursued mostly by just two programs -- Montana State and Missouri Valley Conference school South Dakota State.
For Owens, the choice was easy.
“Coach Ash came into my living room and told me what his program had to offer,” said Owens, a team captain. “I fell for the vision he had.”
“He’s been so remarkable,” Ash said. “He’s one of the first guys we recruited, and he came here before we had really done anything. We joke now that he came here before we were good.
“But he really bought into what we were trying to do. He’s played so much football now that he’s so locked in to everything that goes on. He’s channeling his natural aggressiveness and emotional play into the right kind of focus.”
Of course, Owens will play an important role again Friday night when the Bobcats take on Sam Houston State.
It’s a rematch of a quarterfinal game from last season, which SHSU won in a 49-13 rout. The Bobcats had trouble limiting big plays in that loss, allowing the Bearkats’ dynamic option running game to pile up 428 yards.
MSU passed its first playoff test last week with a 16-10 victory over run-heavy Stony Brook. The Bobcats stood tall against the Seawolves’ compact, power ground attack.
But this week brings a different challenge, one that will test MSU’s defensive speed on the outside against Bearkats standouts like running back Tim Flanders, wide receiver/wildcat back Richard Sincere and quarterback Brian Bell.
A berth in the semifinal round is on the line. And the Bobcats can taste it.
“It’s option football,” Owens said. “You have to do your job. You can’t do somebody else’s job. You look back on the film from last year and that’s what we were doing. Guys were trying to do other guys’ jobs. Then they go for 50 yards.
“Last year’s game is going to help us out a lot. We know where they’re going to try to attack us.”
The Bobcats are out to atone for last year’s disappointment and take another step forward. With Owens leading the way, MSU is ready for retribution.