Eric Owens Jr. played the first two games of the East St. Louis Flyers’ 2016 state-championship season entirely on the offensive side of the line.
As the starting tight end, he caught eight passes for 117 yards and scored a touchdown.
Then Owens was flipped to the defensive side, where an Illinois-best 21 quarterback sacks opened his eyes to an incontrovertible truth about himself: He much prefers being the hammer than the nail.
“On offense you have to take the hit, but on defense you get to deliver the hit,” said Owens. “I like to deliver the hit every time. I like that action. I like to be the hammer.”
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There’s more to Owens than big hits, though, said East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett.
As the lone returning defensive starter for the Flyers in 2017, Owens was called to make another minor shift from outside linebacker to the inside. It was another smooth transition.
Given the experience he gained as a junior, coupled with a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, Owens has both the foresight to recognize what an opposing offense is about to throw at him and the speed to run it down from one sideline to the other.
The combination paid off with 127 tackles, an impressive 94 solo tackles, multiple forced turnovers and five turnover recoveries. Owens was a near-unanimous choice of metro-east coaches as the Belleville News-Democrat Large School Defensive Player of the Year.
“He did a lot for our defense. Out of all our linebackers we had, we thought he’d make the transition a lot easier, so we moved him from our (outside) linebacker to our (inside) position,” Sunkett said. “He has decent size and good speed, but the key for him is his ability to make all the calls and set the defense.”
As a former youth-league teammate with the Belleville Little Knights, Belleville West running back Kriston Davis has long known Owens’ interest in the physicality of football. But he learned how much Owens’ mental game had advanced during the Maroons’ 32-26 loss to East St. Louis on Sept. 30.
At the 8:55 mark of the second quarter, Davis took a pass out of the backfield 44 yards for a game-tying touchdown. West tried the same play again barely seven minutes later with a much different result.
“The first time we ran it, I got (Owens) for about 50 yards,” said Davis, first-team running back on the BND All-Area Team. “The second time, he picked it off and took it to the crib. He saw it coming.
“I know he can hit pretty hard, but he’s also just a really good athlete. He has very good lateral quickness sideline to sideline and knows how to diagnose a play.”
Of his four interceptions on the season, it’s the one Owens best remembers, too.
“I was man-to-man with the running back, Kris,” said Owens, smiling. “ He ran a wheel route, and I got the interception and took it the crib. I only had one pick-six this year, and that was it. That was fun.”
Owens also had fun against Buffalo Grove in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs. He knocked two running backs out of the game — “one of them had to be the biggest running back in Illinois,” he said — in addition to making 11 tackles and forcing a pair of fumbles.
More than anything, Owens said, the dominating 40-18 win bolstered an already-strong sense among the Flyers that they could repeat as state champions. But the season ended the following week with a sloppy 21-18 loss at Mount Carmel’s Gately Stadium.
It was the Flyers’ first loss to an Illinois opponent since 2015 and wasn’t at all the end Owens had envisioned for his high school career.
“We were too confident, I believe,” Owens said. “A lot of people, I believe, thought it was going to be too easy (to repeat), and it wasn’t easy.
“We felt like we had a nice chance going in. It would have been the greatest thing in my life. To have two rings coming out of high school? That was my dream. I’ve got one, though.”
Sunkett says the Flyers’ defense gave up a step to the championship team of 2016, despite allowing just 14.3 points per game. Still, he credited a physical defensive front for “eating up blocks” to give his linebackers the chance to make plays.
And he credited Owens — who is better known to his teammates as “Joe” — for executing his role like an experienced linebacker should.
“We’ve been running the same system for a long time. Our philosophy is to plug in the veteran guys in key spots and watch them flourish,” Sunkett said. “If you have the ability to play one linebacker, you should be able to adjust and play the inside position, too.
“Joe definitely flourished in the system.”
Owens has received college offers from Lindenwood in St. Charles, Alabama State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He made his only official visit to SIUC, though he won’t confirm his college choice before the signing period begins Feb. 7.
At 6-foot and 215 pounds, Owens would be undersized for an NCAA Division I linebacker, though his time in the 40-yard dash reflects ample speed to play safety or cornerback.
Owens says he prefers to stay at linebacker but will play wherever he’s given the best opportunity.
Sunkett says Owens has earned all the opportunity he needs.
“He’s going to get the opportunity to get four years of college education for free,” he said. “It’s up to Joe to capitalize on that, but I have every faith that he will.”