Owusu's successful return does not include returns

August 13, 2012, 4:41 pm
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Chris Owusu lined up on the outside with two Minnesota Vikings assigned to rough him up and impede his progress down the field.At the snap of the ball, Owusu made a quick move to the outside to get around cornerback Bobby Felder. Then, Owusu sprinted down the field untouched, lengthening the gap between the two Vikings with every stride.Owusu's effort, however, was not rewarded on the back end, as Andy Lee's punt sailed 64 yards into the end zone for a touchback. Still, the moment was a significant milestone for Owusu, whose senior season at Stanford ended in early November with his third concussion in a little more than a year.Once viewed as a mid-round draft pick, Owusu was not among the 253 players chosen in the NFL draft. The 49ers signed Owusu shortly after the conclusion of the draft as a rookie free agent.On Friday, Owusu made a successful return to football."It was a dream come true," Owusu said Sunday after the 49ers' practice at Candlestick Park."You always want to fulfill your dreams, and one of my dreams has always been to play in an NFL game. And to go out and compete, it was a blessing. I thank God for the opportunity."Owusu is reticent to discuss concussions. He said once he decided to continue to pursue football as a career, he has been totally invested in winning an NFL full-time job."I prayed about it a lot after what happened to me," Owusu said. "After that, I wasn't looking back. And I want to continue to move forward. Once I made the decision to continue playing football, I'd have no regrets."While some teams shied away from Owusu, the 49ers felt comfortable offering him 3,000 and a spot on the team's 90-man roster because of their close ties to him. Jim Harbaugh coached Owusu at Stanford. And, more important, the 49ers have intimate knowledge of Owusu's medical history."You've got to remember, he was cleared to play by the same group of doctors that work with us on a regular basis," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said in April. "He certainly was not off our board."Dan Garza, the 49ers' team medical director, is associate director of Stanford's Lacob Family Sports Medicine Center. He is also one of the nation's leading concussion researchers. Garza and his colleagues spent last year collecting real-time data through high-tech mouthpieces worn by Stanford players.Owusu is one of 12 receivers on the 49ers' camp roster, and he has remained under the radar for most of the team's dozen practices. Practice time has seemingly been in short supply for Owusu -- even when compared to the other undrafted rookies in camp."That's part of the game," he said. "That's part of being a rookie. You got to go out there and prove you belong on the field and prove that you got what it takes to play in the NFL."Every opportunity, you got to go make the most of it and you got to be confident. You got to know your plays and you have to stay in the playbook. And once you know the plays, just go out and play fast."Owusu made the most of his opportunities on Friday. He played 16 snaps from scrimmage and emerged as the team's leading receiver with three catches for 35 yards.And the 49ers seemed to break out of an apparent protective mode when they lined him up as a gunner on punt coverage. Two Vikings were assigned to batter Owusu, but neither got a hand on him."Chris is an outstanding gunner," Harbaugh said. "We didn't use him (at Stanford) as a gunner. He was more of a returner for us. But he's an outstanding gunner. We found that out since he's been here."Owusu was an outstanding kick returner at Stanford. He returned a Pac-12-record three kicks for touchdowns in 2009. And his career return average of 27.33 yards ranks second all-time in the conference behind former Oregon and current Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart's 28.69.Yet, Owusu is not even listed on the 49ers' depth chart as a return man. On Sunday, six 49ers lined up to practice fielding kickoffs -- Ted Ginn, Kendall Hunter, Kyle Williams, and rookies LaMichael James, A.J. Jenkins and Brian Tyms. And Owusu was merely a spectator.Jenkins and James were the 49ers' picks in the first two rounds. Tyms went undrafted. Owusu clocked faster 40 times at the NFL scouting combine (from 4.31 to 4.36 seconds) than any of them.
The 49ers clearly want to find ways to get James' hands on the ball. The second-round pick is getting a lot of work as a return man. At Oregon, James averaged 21.3 yards on just three career kick returns. Jenkins, the team's first-round pick from Illinois, averaged 20.3 yards on 38 returns -- 22 of which came in 2008 as a freshman.When asked why Owusu is not getting an opportunity to return kicks, Harbaugh seemed just as stumped as anyone."That's exactly what I was thinking, too," Harbaugh said. "He's been really good at gunner. But we can use him at returner. We've been working some other guys, but he's very capable to do it. It's a valid question."

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