ATHENS, Ga. — When A.J. Green soars for one of those amazing catches — you know, the ones where the Georgia receiver seems to defy gravity — he’ll stroll back to the huddle like it’s no big deal.
Considering his other talents, it’s easy to understand why he’s so nonchalant.
What’s so tough about jumping over two guys to grab a football when you’ve juggled bowling pins, or metal rods, whatever — all while riding a unicycle?
“You have to be real coordinated to do that,” Green said with a shrug and a smile. “It took me a while, but I got it.”
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Green started juggling when he was in second grade and, to this day, he can still keep four of just about anything spinning through the air with only his two hands. Around fourth grade, he added unicycle riding to his repertoire, just to make things interesting.
“Wow, that just takes so much concentration,” fellow Georgia receiver Kris Durham marveled. “Think about the body control it takes to ride one of those, and then to turn around and have that sort of hand-eye coordination (for juggling), well, that’s just unbelievable.”
Green doesn’t ride a unicycle anymore, but he keeps heads spinning on the football field.
From a purely physical standpoint, he has just about everything that’s needed in a top receiver: Size (6-foot-4), leaping ability and deceptive speed. But he stands apart because of his intuitive skills when the ball’s in the air, the instincts honed at an early age when circus acrobat appeared his most likely career option.
Knack for maneuvering
Green has this knack of maneuvering his body into just the right position to make the catch, no matter how many defenders are trying to get in his way. He always seems to make the reception when the ball’s at its highest point, giving him a distinct advantage against mostly shorter cornerbacks.
“I don’t think words can really describe it,” said Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin, who’s often assigned to defend Green in practice. “You never know what he’s going to do. With a lot of receivers, you can kind of guess what route they’re going to do based on how they’re running. With A.J., it’s really tough to know what he’s going to run. He has so many elements to his game. He can position his body. He’s fast. He’s long. Going against him every day is definitely a challenge.”
Hey, at least it’s only practice. When Boykin gets burned, it doesn’t cost the Bulldogs a game.
“The guys on the other side, I feel bad for them,” he said, “because A.J. is going to make them look bad.”
Green has made a lot of defenders look bad during his first two years at Georgia. He had 56 catches for 963 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman even though he was getting by largely on talent. Last year, he finished with 53 catches for 808 yards and six touchdowns — despite missing all or part of five games due to two separate injuries.
Heading into his junior season, Green is ready to put it all together: A healthy year with a full knowledge of college schemes.
“That first year, on almost every play, somebody was helping him,” coach Mark Richt said. “Now, he understands everything very well.”
Green can tell the difference.
“I didn’t even know where to line up half the time,” he recalled. “Now, I feel like the old man. I’m telling the young guys what to do. I’m helping our young quarterback out.”
There’s still a potentially major snag hanging over Green’s season.
The NCAA is investigating Georgia amid allegations that players from several schools attended an agent-hosted party in Miami. There’s been reports that Green is the target, though he insists he’s never been to the city and is getting ready for the season as he always does.
In the meantime, he’s declining comment until the NCAA finishes its work.
Of lesser concern is that Green will work with his third starting quarterback in three seasons. He’s gone from No. 1 draft pick-to-be Matthew Stafford to journeyman Joe Cox and now to promising redshirt freshman Aaron Murray, who knows No. 8 could make the learning curve a lot easier.
“With A.J., you can pretty much throw anything at him and know he’s going to catch it,” Murray said. “He’s that safety valve. If I’m in trouble, he’s going to give me a shot to get out of it.”
The two worked together extensively over the summer, honing their timing and getting comfortable with each other’s tendencies. They hope all that extra work will pay off when the No. 23 Bulldogs open the season Sept. 4 against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Georgia is coming off a disappointing 8-5 season and eager to show it can compete with Southeastern Conference powerhouses such as Alabama and Florida. This likely will be its final season with Green, who’s already projected by many as a top-five pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Murray sure wishes his favorite receiver would hang around for his senior year.
“You never know. There might be a lockout,” the young quarterback said, trying to sound hopeful. “I won’t complain too much if he stays. I keep going, ‘Lockout! Lockout!”’