Georgia coaches won't come near talking about just how special A.J. Green is on the record, but Green's teammates raved about him this summer. A YouTube legend, if Green is even remotely close to being as good as he looked in high school he will be a star.
Those two are my best bets for being the Next Big Thins at Georgia, but there are others who could take that spot, too. Last year Dawg Post put running back Knowshon Moreno on the cover and proclaimed him "The Next Big Thing." Dawg Post was right. I narrowed the list to five candidates for this season – three of the choices seem obvious – the other two not as much.
THE NEXT BIG THING
When Reshad Jones gave Georgia his commitment and signature on Signing Day nearly three years ago he capped off what has become perhaps the most-successful recruiting class of the Mark Richt Era. Matthew Stafford, Asher Allen and
Knowshon Moreno have had their time in the spotlight while wearing red and black. As a full-time starter for the first time in his career in 2008, it is now Jones' turn to show what he can do.
The Atlanta native was redshirted his first year on campus, and then spent most of last year learning the intricacies of the defense at Georgia. He was a bit impatient, according to several folks, and too often looked for the big hit – not necessarily the coverage. Perhaps Jones relied too much on his God-given ability and less on the scheme itself. But over the latter part of the 2007 season and spring practice Jones has honed his skills to play within the defensive system that is Willie Martinez's scheme. Being in the right place at the right time with Jones' physical skills is scary.
There are only a couple of players on Georgia's roster with the raw physical ability of Jones – Stafford and Moreno are the obvious choices of those who have spent any time in Athens. There is some debate as to if Jones is the top NFL prospect in that trio, which is really saying something. If Jones has the sort of 2008 I think he will then he will certainly be in the discussion of not only being the Next Big Thing at Georgia, but possibly the best overall player on the team. He's got the ability to do it – no question – but he's got some serious competition to be the best on this roster. Either way, I think Jones is poised for a breakout year.
GREEN WITH ENVY
It's sort of like watching the replay of a video game – the wide receiver jumps up and yanks the ball down with one hand. But A.J. Green is not a pixilated video game creature that has been created in Silicon Valley. He's a long and lean receiver from the Lowcountry of South Carolina. He's a kid who is more likely to play on his four-wheelers outside than with a joystick.
Green, as he claims, is nothing more than a country boy – but what a talented one he is.
When true talent comes along any idiot can spot it. Green runs a little differently than others; no one can explode to the ball the way he can. What A.J. Green was 12 months ago was unfair – an NFL football player destroying prepsters doing their best to double and triple team him. The only team who could limit Green was his own – his offensive line gave quarterback Reid McCullum so little time to get the ball to Green that Summerville suffered an embarrassing loss on national television early in the season last year. Some claimed Green was overrated biased solely on that performance… wrong.
That performance by the Green Wave offensive line didn't prevent Summerville from ending last season with an appearance in the South Carolina State Championship. They could not have gotten that without him. Green was the reason the Green Wave tore through football in the Palmetto State the last four years. He put his final stamp on prep football by catching five balls for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas.
His high school career behind him now, Green will face much stiffer competition in the SEC. Adding to that is the fact that Georgia fans have heard all of this hype before – "XYZ is the next great receiver at Georgia." The problem has been that those statements have always been wrong (Durrell Robinson), or, as in the case with Reggie Brown or Fred Gibson, left the Bulldog faithful wanting a little more. Green is different. Georgia coaches knew just what Georgia Tech got when they signed Calvin Johnson – I'm sure those on North Avenue know just what Georgia's got now.
There are some hurdles for Green, however. He will have to learn the complex Georgia system. He will have to become more physical with his blocks downfield. He will not be allowed to take plays off, which is so easy to do in high school. He will have to take a percentage of big plays away from Mohammed Massaqoui and Kris Durham, both of whom have come on in the last year to be relied-on players for the Dawgs. Those things are all understood – he's elevating into another stage of football; therefore he is going to need to elevate his game, too.
But what is different for Green is his raw ability. He can do things other players just can not do. That's what makes him special… that's what puts him on the short list for Dawg Post's Next Big Thing.
Knowshon Moreno, when he wasn't busy thrashing opponents on the way to being the biggest thing at Georgia since Herschel Walker, could understand what Caleb King was going through last season. After all, it was Moreno who sat on the sideline his first fall in Athens… waiting for his shot to prove that the .com scouts were right.
I don't expect King to become Moreno – at least not right away – and the fact of the matter is that he doesn't have to be Moreno from 2007. All King needs to do is be something similar to what Thomas Brown was last season, and Georgia will be hard to beat.
According to many folks, the former Greater Atlanta Christian star can do just that. But, one, let's say, rather talented member of the team told me in early spring that the light came on for King late in the year – just before the Sugar Bowl. We didn't hear the hype about King last fall, and there are a slew of reasons why. Moreno was the story; Georgia wasn't struggling the way it was in Knowshon's first fall; King still needed time to get used to contact after missing the end of his senior season with an injury.
One thing that must be pointed out about King is that this is not the same Caleb King who dotted the .com landscape after his junior season. He's much bigger than he once was, but that's not necessarily prevented him from being an outstanding running back.
It will be hard to notice King as much as Green this fall. Moreno is so sparkly – so in the spotlight. That doesn't mean, however, that King should be overlooked. 2008 should be a breakout year for him, too.
Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington took a brief stop from eating his lunch to explain a few things to me about Justin Houston.
"The truth about it, Dean," he said. "Is that we really restrict what Justin can do with the way we scheme defensively. I think you are going to see that when he gets to Georgia. Really, we are holding him back because we have to."
Hold back no more.
Houston really turned up his performance this spring. His name was consistently mentioned after a number of scrimmages as a player who had done well. He may have some issue getting the amount of time necessary to truly break out this fall. He's in the defensive end rotation with a number of veterans who have played well, and Houston must beat out ever-growing and also impressive Neland Ball for as much time as possible.
Still, if Pennington is correct, and Statesboro held him back, I will be interested to see the production from Houston after one full year under the steady coaching hand of Jon Fabris. If there is a coach at Georgia who gets more out of talent than
Fabris, I'm not sure who they are.
Look for Houston to get into the flow sometime after September. By the end of the season he should be leaned on for production, and this time Georgia will turn him loose.
JONESING TO GET IN THERE
Everyone, by now, has heard the stories about Ben Jones and the way he earned his scholarship. Fine. What's he been doing lately? Jones spent most of the summer getting in shape – dropping weight to get ready for the fall.
Jones, I thought and still think, will start at least one game this fall. He could, in fact, start even more thanks to suspensions along the offensive line.
Chris Davis, who I spotlighted in last year's Next Big Thing issue, was saying during Sugar Bowl practices that the staff at Georgia felt that Jones could slide into the center spot then (Note to staff: Davis may not be the best spokesman if you are trying to keep your secrets out of the press). Davis was right – and it only took Jones spring football to prove it. Jones didn't slap Georgia's first-team defensive line around during the annual G-Day game, but he held his own. The Sporting News, which conducted interviews for its annual preview edition, also noted that the staff had confidence that Jones could play significant minutes for the team, if needed.
The if needed part is probably the biggest thing for Jones. Will he be able to jump above no less than two players in order to start for Georgia even though he has no college football experience and has less than six months of practice under his belt?
He was that dominant every time I saw him live, but I don't want to get too far ahead of where he will be.
Ben Jones won't be the Next Big Thing at Georgia – an offensive lineman never is. But what Jones can be is a passionate player with a motor similar to Knowshon Moreno and David Pollack. Those two players should not be mentioned lightly, but Jones has the same sort of football metabolism as that duo – and that will have Georgia faithful Jonesing for this Alabama native sooner rather than later.