From Phenom to Grizzled Vet

ATHENS – A year ago, A.J. Green took the SEC by storm. He set the Georgia record for receiving yards by a freshman and nearly set the overall school mark. He dominated defenders, finished second on the team in receptions and was a terror near the goal line.

Last year, Green was dominant, and most of the time, he had no idea what he was doing.

"You watch on film, there are a lot of plays where you can tell he was kind of lost," quarterback Joe Cox said. "Last year, he was one of the guys (former quarterback) Matthew (Stafford) would need to make sure he knew what to do."

This year, things are different. Green knows the offense, understands his role and is focused on developing into a more dynamic receiver. Instead of being a freshman phenom relying on raw ability, he's hoping to be something more – and even he has trouble finding words to describe it.

"I'm just looking for 100 percent A.J. – whatever that means," he said.

The job won't be simple.

In his sophomore campaign, Green will be without Stafford, the rocket-armed quarterback who so routinely found the freshman receiver downfield. Dynamic tailback Knowshon Moreno kept defenses honest by forcing opponents to play the run, but he's gone, too. And most importantly, Green will be without his mentor, Mohamed Massaquoi, the senior receiver who helped take pressure off Green on the field and guide him through the travails of college life off it.

But for all the things Green might be missing this year, the overwhelming feeling among his teammates is excitement over how much better he might be.

"This year, he knows what to do," Cox said. "He's helping out younger guys. You can tell he just has so much more confidence in everything – how he wants to run a certain route, what he's supposed to do on a certain play – and it shows."

Green's natural ability – "freak ball skills," senior Michael Moore calls it – forced coaches to play him almost immediately.

The results were tremendous. Green finished the season with 58 receptions, good for fifth in the SEC and just two behind Massaquoi, while racking up a conference-best 963 receiving yards en route to All-SEC honors. He did all of that with a nagging groin injury, a still immature physique and nothing more than a rudimentary knowledge of the offense.

"He was thrown in as a freshmen, and it's kind of hard to learn everything and play at the same time," receiver Israel Troupe said. "He's done a real good job of learning the playbook now, and he's gotten a lot bigger. He's more physical, too, so all that adds on to his game and makes him that much better of a player."

That's reason No. 1 opposing cornerbacks should have trouble sleeping before facing off against Green this season.

When he arrived at Georgia, the 6-foot-4 receiver was a slender 184 pounds. In the 14 months since, he has packed on 24 pounds, including 15 since wrapping up the 2008 season.

Simply being more physical won't be Green's only advantage, however. Georgia's coaches are using his bigger frame and improved knowledge of the offense to try him at different positions.

Since the spring, Green has worked extensively at both the flanker and split end positions, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said he plans to put his star receiver in motion routinely to keep defenders on their toes.

"They've just got me concentrating on moving around to different positions so they can't just key on that one spot that I play."

Of course, even if defenses do know what to expect from Green, that doesn't mean they can stop him.

Throughout the season last year, Moore said the receivers would sit in meetings and study film to get an idea of what the opposition might throw at them on game day.

Once the Bulldogs took the field, however, the defenses looked far different from what the receivers had studied.

"That's mainly because of A.J. and the success that he had," Moore said. "I think he'll be ready for double coverage, and hopefully I can help take some of the pressure off of him."

Green may be ready for life after Massaquoi, Stafford and Moreno, but the departure of so many veterans from last year's team meant the wide receiver corps would be light on experience beyond its star.

Moore is the group's lone senior, and he and Green are the only two receivers with more than four career catches. So more than just his improvements on the field, Green needed to step up as a leader off the field.

"It's crazy, I'm just going into my sophomore year and everybody's looking up to me," Green said. "I'm just trying to take on that leadership role."

Despite his youth, the mentor job suits him. The advice Massaquoi imparted a year ago, Green is anxious to pass along this season. The lessons he learned from playing as a rookie have given him the resources to understand what his teammates need to do to find success.

Just a year after bursting onto the scene, Green is ready to be more than a phenom. He's a veteran, and he wants to produce like one.

"He's playing with a lot more confidence," Moore said. "He just knows he can go out there and dominate, and I think that's what he's going to do this year."

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