It's Easy Being Green

ATHENS – As a true freshman, A.J. Green came just 42 yards shy of setting a school record for receiving yards. It was an impressive debut, but for Green, it was a bit of a disappointment. He wants more.

Despite the big numbers in 2008, Green played nearly the entire season with an injured groin. He started his first game just a few months after arriving in Athens. By midseason, he was drawing double teams regularly, even though he had yet to learn the entire playbook.

So as Green sets to become the focal point of the Bulldogs' 2009 offense, he has already put last season's success behind him. It's all about the encore performance, and he promises Georgia fans they haven't seen anything yet.

"It's going to be something special what I can do when I'm healthy," he said.

Green's sophomore year will bring new challenges, a new quarterback, a new role and loads of potential.

As a freshman, Green relied heavily on senior Mohamed Massaquoi, who steered Green in the right direction off the field and steered defenders away from him on it.

Massaquoi finished the year with 58 catches and 920 yards, and his production kept defenses honest. This year, the focus will be on Green, so while he works to improve his game this spring, Georgia's offense is working to find a new partner in crime for its dynamic receiver.

"It's definitely important to him, but it's important to us, too," said Joe Cox, who takes over for Matthew Stafford as Georgia's starting quarterback this season. "We can't have just one guy we're focusing on getting the ball, but I think we have three guys right now that have really stepped up, and more behind them that are making their way up there."

That puts some pressure on Kris Durham, Michael Moore and Tavarres King to prove they're capable of stepping into Massaquoi's shoes and stealing some of the defensive attention away from Green. They won't be the only ones with more responsibility to shoulder this year, however, as the departure of Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno leave Green as the offense's only true star.

As much as the Bulldogs would like to find players to compliment his prowess on the field, it will be up to Green to prove he can beat defenses even when they are focused on shutting him down.

Last year, there were games in which a stellar first half was followed by a quiet second half, and Green's numbers peaked midway through the season. After running up 132 yards on Vanderbilt Oct. 18, Green didn't top 100 yards in a game the rest of the season. He hauled in just one catch for 12 yards in Georgia's bowl game against Michigan State, a performance that cost him his shot at the record books and, he said, has motivated him to improve this season.

"I just watched a little bit of one-on-one and you can see him growing," former wide receivers coach John Eason said. "Even just having watched him last year, just watching him for two days you can see some things he's improved on already."

Part of the improvement for Green is comfort with the offense. Part of it is simply comfort.

Green first tweaked his groin early in fall camp last year, and while it never kept him off the field on game day, it slowed him down throughout the season. The injury got worse the more he played on it – sore at first, downright painful by year's end.

Just a week before Georgia opened spring practice, Green still wasn't sure if he would be able to participate. His only diagnosis from trainers had been rest and relaxation, but he was anxious to get back on the field.

So far, it's been a smooth transition. Green said the groin is still a little tender, but he's working at full speed, a big departure from the pain he played through in December.

"He looks good," head coach Mark Richt said. "In bowl practice, I knew he was struggling. Right now, I don't see that. I don't see that little grimace or whatever is slowing him down. So I hope he's feeling as good as he's practicing.

A healthy Green could be a particularly dangerous weapon. But a healthy and educated Green might be unstoppable.

It was easy to forget his inexperience last season when Green was busy burning Arizona State to the tune of 159 yards in just the fourth game of his career, but his knowledge of the offense was still limited back then. These days, he said he knows the playbook inside and out, and defenses could pay the price.

"The true freshmen coming in, a lot of them have the ability to come in and help you right away, but not so many of them can come in and grasp what's going on," said Bryan McClendon, who worked with Green as a graduate assistant last year before taking over as the team's running backs coach. "With A.J. being more and more comfortable with the offense, the faster he can play, the less indecision he'll have, he can just say – bam – I got it."

Green hopes that knowledge will help in his adjustment to life without Massaquoi. Safety Bryan Evans said he has seen a big improvement in Green's blocking ability in practice and said he's getting much better leverage coming off the line of scrimmage.

The improved knowledge of the offense has also meant more versatility for Green. Coaches have spent the spring moving him around from split end to flanker, putting him in motion and giving him more opportunities to make plays. That's a role he expects to carry over into the season.

"I'm a little older, and I can just relax and play now," Green said. "I know the offense, and now they're moving me around so I can learn some different positions."

The other adjustment for Green this spring begins with the man on the other end of the passes he's snatching downfield. Usually it takes a while for a new quarterback to develop a relationship with his receivers, but the two worked together during practice a lot last season, and in truth, Cox said, his job is pretty simple.

"The only thing we're focusing on whenever he's out there is just making sure the ball's in play," Cox said. "He's going to make a play for us."

Green still hasn't been on campus for a full year, but that's enough for everyone in the Georgia locker room to have high expectations for him. Of course, there's a difference between high expectations and knowing what to expect.

When it comes to predictions, Cox has no idea what Green might do in his encore performance. The way he sees it, any guess is likely to be an understatement.

"Once he has everything down pat in his head," Cox said, "he can do whatever he wants to do."

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