Auburn cornerback Walt McFadden paused after hearing the question, carefully weighing the benefits of giving an answer and providing bulletin board material for one of his team’s next two opponents.
The query? Who’s the better receiver, Georgia’s A.J. Green, who the Tigers face this week, or Alabama’s Julio Jones, whom they’ll face in the regular-season finale.
“I can probably give one now, but I don’t think I should,” McFadden said, showing the wisdom of a fifth-year senior.
The cornerback knows better than to give Green, the SEC’s leading receiver, more motivation than he will need heading into Saturday’s game in Athens.
Never miss a local story.
Green, who has 44 catches for 732 yards and six touchdowns this year, is back to full strength after sitting out the Bulldogs’ game against Tennessee Tech last week with a bruised lung.
Auburn is aware of what he can do. As a true freshman last year, Green caught five passes for 87 yards and a 17-yard touchdown from Matthew Stafford in the fourth quarter that proved to be the winner in the Bulldogs’ 17-13 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“A.J. Green is a great talent,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “He has a lot of range and speed. He is their go-to guy.”
“He likes to make big plays,” McFadden said. “We can’t let him get in our heads. If he catches a pass, we just have to be ready for the next play. He’s a receiver that’s going to get passes thrown at him.”
The Tigers have had mixed results with big-time receivers this year. Two players — West Virginia’s Jock Sanders and Mississippi’s Shay Hodge — have burned Auburn for more receiving yards than Green’s season average of 91.5 per game. Sanders, a shifty wideout, caught 12 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. Hodge had seven receptions for 105 yards.
But Auburn hasn’t necessarily shut down other top-notch receivers. LSU’s duo of Terrance Toliver and Brandon LaFell combined for 15 catches, 153 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-point blowout in Baton Rouge three weeks ago.
Arkansas, even without top wideout Joe Adams, still got 85 yards and a touchdown out of Greg Childs, who beat cornerback Neiko Thorpe on several big plays. And, despite Auburn playing three solid quarters of defense against Tennessee, Vols receiver Gerald Jones still caught seven passes for 75 yards.
The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green is an even bigger challenge, made tougher by how Georgia moves him around on the field to prevent defenses from always knowing his whereabouts.
“It’s not like you can say, ‘He’s going to be here, so you can call this,’” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “He’s a guy who is one of the best in the country. And sometimes you see where people have great coverage on him, and he delivers the ball and makes great plays. And when that happens, you just have to keep your head up and move on to the next one, because he is a great player and is going to make some great plays.”
Complicating matters is Auburn’s shuffled secondary. Junior college transfer Demond Washington has played one half at safety, moving there from cornerback for the early part of the Furman game after Zac Etheridge suffered a season-ending neck injury against Mississippi the previous week.
The Tigers trade size for coverage ability with Washington, who is generously listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds but possesses speed and coverage skills.
“We play more man with him,” safety Daren Bates said. “He’s able to lock down receivers. He’s a corner back there.”
That doesn’t mean Washington and the rest of the secondary won’t try to be physical with Green, one of the bigger receivers in the SEC.
“I know we just have to get physical with him, put our hands on him, disrupt his routes, not give him a jump off,” Bates said. “It just comes down to execution.”