ATHENS, Ga. — In three games this season, Georgia’s A.J. Green has touched the ball an average of six times per game. His effect on the game, however, is more far-reaching.
Since the star wide receiver returned from NCAA suspension, Georgia has seen an uptick in its running game, its other receivers and tight ends have caught more passes, and the offense in general has been improved.
That’s no coincidence, according to Georgia players and coaches and opposing coaches.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt that he’s drawn the most attention of anybody I’ve coached,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “There has definitely been an A.J. Green plan so far. He changes everything.”
Why does Green change everything? Because when he is on the field, the other team has at least a cornerback and a safety focused on him, and the rest of Georgia’s offense essentially is playing 10-on-9.
The numbers tell the story:
Since Green returned, Georgia is averaging 37 points, compared to 24.3 while he was out — 14 points per game in three SEC games.)
Georgia is averaging 267.3 passing yards with Green and averaged 228 without him.
The rushing yardage has been even more stark: 185.3 yards per game with Green, 124.3 without him.
“He’s a special player,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “When he touches the ball, he has a chance to score every time he touches it, and defenses have got to know where he is, and they’ve got to account for him, and that’s going to take a lot of focus off of just lining up and playing ball.”
The past two opponents, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, have used coverages they haven’t tried at any point this season.
It still didn’t work.
“What happens is you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “You’re so focused on trying to handle A.J. it really puts a lot of pressure on the rest of your defense, whether it’s in the run game or in pass coverage away from A.J. We really didn’t defend anything well. We did put some new coverages in, and they obviously didn’t work.”
Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell concurred with Dooley’s assessment.
“We did a little bit more in the coverage in the back end than we had,” Caldwell said. “But we didn’t execute real well. Of course, Georgia had a lot to do with that too.”
Richt detailed the coverages the Bulldogs have seen against Green. It’s more than just doubling him. It has involved a cover-2 package just on Green’s side of the field, which Richt noted means the defense is “more vulnerable to things on the weak side of the field.”
And therein is the benefit for Georgia’s tight ends, who have caught more passes since Green’s return. The same goes for slot receiver Tavarres King and fellow starter Kris Durham.
“They might want to start respecting them some more,” Murray said. “Because both of them, when they’ve gotten chances to perform, they’ve done a tremendous job.”
Durham isn’t offended.
“I’ve seen when I’m running routes the safeties are rolling away from me just because they have to roll to his side,” Durham said. “So it’s opened the windows up to myself and Tavarres and other receivers. It’s huge, and, at the same time, with the defenses having to be worried about him and his playmaking abilities, it’s opened up our running game and other facets of our offense.”
The Bulldogs have had a star skill-position player as recently two years ago: tailback Knowshon Moreno. But Bobo said defenses weren’t geared around defending Moreno because the Bulldogs also had quarterback Matthew Stafford and Green.
“It’s kind of difficult to decide which poison you were going to defend,” Bobo said. “We had a lot of one-on-one matchups. It was just a matter of winning those matchups.”