ATHENS — Coaches warned Joe Cox that if the play wasn’t open, to throw the ball away. But when A.J. Green is the intended receiver, Cox reasoned, there’s always a chance he’ll make the catch.
So Cox tossed a pass to Green in the back of the end zone through double coverage against South Carolina on Saturday, and the sophomore receiver made the reception look easy.
“It looks good, but he’s done it so much that it doesn’t surprise me,” Cox said. “He’ll make a catch, and I’ll laugh a little bit and say, ‘That guy, he’s good. And I’m glad he’s on my team.’”
With so many new faces at key positions this season and Georgia’s coaches still struggling to find the offense’s identity, Green’s presence is more than a nice bonus for the Bulldogs. The sophomore receiver has been an absolute necessity — the block upon which the rest of the game plan is built.
In Georgia’s opener, Green was blanketed by the Oklahoma State defense and held to just 52 yards receiving as the Bulldogs’ offense struggled. A week later, Green found a few more ways to get open, and the result was six catches, 86 yards, a touchdown and a Georgia victory.
“We depended on A.J. a lot of times last year, even with Knowshon (Moreno) and (Matthew) Stafford,” wide receiver Michael Moore said. “Now A.J. really can make a play when there’s double coverage. He showed that last week. Joe gave him a ball that only he can get, and he went and got it over two defenders two times in a row.”
With a first-year starter at quarterback, tailback, tight end and split end, Green is the lone known quantity on offense for Georgia, and the opposition is paying him plenty of attention.
Green said he has seen a lot more double coverage this season, with defenses rolling coverage to his side of the field and bringing a safety over the top just to slow him down.
“You can tell how much defenses key on him,” Cox said. “They know where he is every time we break out of the huddle. The thing that’s sometimes difficult is you watch teams on film, and you think you know what they’re going to do, but then you have A.J. Green, and they might come up with a totally different thing to try to keep him in check.”
But as Green goes, so goes Georgia’s offense, and the coaching staff has made a point to find ways to get the football in his hands in spite of what the defenses are doing to prevent it.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has moved Green around the field, working him as the boundary receiver for the first time in Green’s career and putting him in motion more often than he did a year ago.
It’s hardly a foolproof plan, but it’s a wrinkle that other teams can’t anticipate ahead of time, and Green only needs the slightest of advantages in order to make a big play happen.
“That’s what A.J. can do — he can make plays,” Bobo said. “As a quarterback or the guy calling the plays, that’s your job is to give him the opportunity to do it.”
For all the attention Green gets, however, what most people don’t realize about the mild-mannered sophomore is his competitive drive, head coach Mark Richt said. That, more than anything, has prepared him for the challenge of being Georgia’s go-to playmaker this season.
Of course, there’s a downside, too.
Green is competitive in everything he does, Moore said, and when the ball is in his hands, Green expects to make it count.
With that in mind, Green tried to turn his first catch against South Carolina last week into a touchdown, rather than a short gain.
The result was a fumble into the hands of Gamecocks defensive back Chris Culliver, setting up a South Carolina touchdown.
“When he fumbled that first play, you saw in his eyes how miserable he felt,” Richt said. “It means a lot to that kid.”
Moore went over and put his arm around his fellow receiver, who was fuming on the sideline.
“He tried to make a play when it wasn’t really there,” Moore said. “He gets angry with himself, but I just told him, ‘You don’t have to make every play a touchdown.’”
It’s easy to understand why Green might think he does have to score each time he touches the ball, but he said he has learned from the mistake.
It’s easy, too, to understand why Green might think he can score every time he touches the ball. His teammates believe that, too.
What people forget, Bobo said, is that Green is still just a sophomore. He’s still learning, still adjusting, still relying as much on talent as he is on knowledge.
But that’s the beauty of being the cornerstone to the offense this season. Knowledge comes from experience, and he’s gaining a ton of it from the start.
“I had that focus of just to work and fight off double coverage and go make big plays,” he said. “It’s just normal now,” Green said.