ATHENS, Ga. — For awhile this month, A.J. Green was in line to be Georgia’s top punt returner. Then Branden Smith returned, and now it will probably be him, according to Green.
And Georgia’s star receiver is mildly disappointed, even if that means Green — The Franchise, to some — is in additional harm’s way.
“Some of the players have been saying that, but I don’t really listen to that,” said Green, an All-American candidate. “I wanna be back there anyway.”
Georgia’s return game hasn’t gotten much notice this preseason. But it has a chance to be pretty interesting.
Never miss a local story.
The Bulldogs ranked 10th in the SEC last season in kick return yardage - but Brandon Boykin brought three back for touchdowns.
On punts, the Bulldogs were fourth in return yardage, but the main returner (Prince Miller) is gone.
In his absence, Georgia is working in a plethora of players. There’s Green and Smith, but also Carlton Thomas, Bacarri Rambo and Logan Gray.
For those keeping score, that’s a receiver, a cornerback, a tailback, a safety and a receiver who just switched from quarterback.
Running backs coach Bryan McClendon, who coaches the punt return unit, said the dilemma over whether to use Green at punt return is an age-old one.
“In Knoshown (Moreno’s) last year, he returned a punt, and I think it went 30 yards,” McClendon said. “And people always said, ‘Well why wasn’t he back there some more?’ You look at people and see when they put their guys in there. You had Dez Bryant who was pretty much the franchise of (Oklahoma State) and he was back there returning punts. Even when coach (Mark) Richt was back at Florida State, Pete Warrick was back there returning punts.”
The first thing McClendon is looking for in a punt retuner is someone reliable - and not in terms of consistent yardage returns. He wants someone who isn’t a fumble risk, and who will take command on bouncing punts, making sure teammates know where the ball is.
“We’ve still got a bunch of guys back there trying it out,” McClendon said. “The biggest thing (is) we’ve gotta put somebody back there (who) priority No. 1 is to make sure that Georgia’s offense takes the field.”
The picture at kick return is much clearer. Boykin will be the main man in Georgia’s formation, which leaves Boykin as the safety, standing near the end zone.
The Bulldogs are also working in other players to put ahead of Boykin, in the event of shorter kickoffs - Smith, Carlton Thomas, freshman Derek Owens and Washaun Ealey (before his arrest). Cornerback Vance Cuff is also a possibility, though he hasn’t gotten many reps this month.
But ideally, Boykin gets the ball.
“He has that belief he can return it every time he gets it in his hands,” said receiver coach Tony Ball, who oversees the kick return unit. “And he has that instinct you have to have back there. And he’s not, at 180 pounds if you will, you don’t perceive him to be a big guy. But he’s an explosive player. And I think that’s what makes him special, is those attributes.”
As for punt return, Smith laughed when asked what he brings to those duties.
“I bring a lot,” he said. “Speed. That’s the main thing, is speed. Big plays. Punt return, you need a reliable guy to be back there, and you don’t really have a lot of speed, but you’ve gotta be able to catch the ball, and just to have that breakout speed.”