After being shuffled around, Green finds a home at tailback

When J.J. Green enrolled at Georgia in January, he was a 17-year-old who was looked upon as someone who might be able to help the Bulldogs as a receiver or defensive back.

But by the time spring practice rolled around, Green was shuttled to tailback, and even though he’s got the likes of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall ahead of him, it appears as if he’s found a home in the Georgia backfield.

When both Gurley and Marshall were injured this season, Green and fellow freshman Brendan Douglas were pressed into duty and both answered the call admirably. Green earned two starts and was the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher this fall, picking up 365 yards and three touchdowns on 62 carries.

He ran for 129 yards against Tennessee and had a career-best 57 yard rush against Missouri (where he also picked up 42 receiving yards). Not too shabby for a guy who was recruited under the nebulous term of “athlete.”

“When I got here in January, I was just worried about what I could do to learn the playbook, to be honest,” Green, who turned 18 in June, said. “It feels great knowing that this whole year has gone my way.”

“J.J. has done very well, considering that he was a guy we weren’t quite sure what position we wanted him to play,” said coach Mark Richt, whose No. 23 Bulldogs (8-4) will face Nebraska (8-4) on New Year’s Day at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. “We knew we just wanted him at Georgia, and last year in the spring we really needed some help at the running back position. We knew he could do it. We didn’t know if it would be a full-time gig for him or not, but it turns out that he’s quite a back.”

As is the case with most recruits, Green was not particular about where he’d line up, just as long as he got to play somewhere.

“I was recruited as an athlete and the first position I was moved to was wide receiver, to see how things would go,” Green, from Camden County, said. “That was short, so I went to running back and I’ve been there ever since. I just wanted to play; whatever the first position where I could get on the field and make a contribution and it’s stuck to me.”

The 5-foot-9, 183-pound Green has impressed his teammates with his ability to make a difference, in spite of his age, size and lack of seasoning.

“He was electric,” offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “It was crazy to think he possibly could have been playing cornerback or receiver or something like that. The fact that he was able to come in and play running back and pick it up quickly and do a great job was awesome.”

“I’m sure going into the season he wasn’t thinking about playing much at all, but with the year we’ve had with all the injuries, there he is as a starter,” split end Michael Bennett added. “He’s grown up fast and that’s what it’s all about. We needed him so much in that Tennessee game and he delivered.”

While the 34-31 overtime victory over Tennessee (which was when Marshall suffered a season-ending ACL injury) was a big game for Green, the freshman pointed to Georgia’s 59-17 victory over Kentucky as his most memorable day as a Bulldog.

“The Tennessee game was probably my best performance but I also liked the Kentucky game,” Green, who rushed for 35 yards and a touchdown against the Wildcats, said. “It was nighttime, the feeling at the stadium was great, everybody was there and it was a blackout. It was great.”

He has excelled as a runner, but Green has also proven his value as a pass catcher and pass blocker.

“One of the hardest things for freshmen is to pick up the pass game, protection-wise, and to understand blitzes, and he and Brendan have done a phenomenal job for us protecting this year,” quarterback Hutson Mason, who took over the offense after Aaron Murray’s season-ending injury, said. “If you can run the rock here but you can’t pass protect, you’re not going to play. That’s how you know he’s a special cat — he’s playing as a true freshman.”

“J.J. added a different spark to it,” All-Southeastern Conference tight end Arthur Lynch said. “He has good hands and he was able to catch the ball out of the backfield. For a guy who’s not that big, he’s tough. He broke some tackles and has that breakaway speed. Our offense was able to succeed because people stepped up when we needed them to, and J.J.’s a perfect example of that.

When next spring rolls around, it is expected that Green will remain a tailback and there are no plans currently divulged to change that.

“We’ve not had any conversation at all about him moving,” Richt said. “I’m not saying he never could or that he couldn’t expand his role as having the ability to learn some things out in the slot to have a tailback that has the versatility to learn in the backfield and then get out in the slot a little bit in the future. I’m sure that will be something we talk about in the offseason, but it’s not something that we’re messing with now.”

Green knows that he’s got some excellent runners ahead of him, but he said he’ll continue to work hard to earn his touches.

“There will be enough for everybody to go around,” Gurley said. “It was like that at the beginning of this year when everybody was playing, so it will be alright.”

“When you’ve got (Gurley and Marshall) in front of you, you might think about one or two carries a game, but I got to start two games and I never thought I’d start as a freshman at Georgia,” Green said. “But it became a reality and it seems kind of nice. It’s a job — you know what you’ve got to do when you get in there and there’s nobody to tell you what your role is. You have to practice the way (Gurley) practices. You get in there and ball out.”