ATHENS — During practice earlier this week, A.J. Green decided he was tired of being cautious and protecting his shoulder, which was still healing after a sprain he suffered last month. So when a ball was thrown a bit wide on one of his route-running drills, Green laid out to haul in the pass, diving after the ball and falling to the ground.
Georgia trainer Ron Courson immediately sprinted on to the field, fearing the worst, but Green didn’t keep anyone in suspense for long. He quickly popped up, waved off the trainers and assured his teammates he was fine.
In fact, getting back to doing some real work on the football field had Green feeling as good as he had in a while.
“It was painful just standing on the sidelines,” Green said of his extended absence during the final month of the season. “I never missed any games in high school, and this was the first time I had to sit and watch my team play without me.”
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A lung bruise cost Green one game in November then a shoulder separation a week later knocked him out of the Kentucky game before the half, and he hasn’t played since.
It was an extended absence for a player who had been the cornerstone of Georgia’s offense through much of the season, but Green said he’s feeling back to normal now and ready to pick up where he left off back in October.
“It’s close to 100 percent,” Green said of his shoulder. “I’ve got my range of motion back, and it’s getting better each day.”
Green’s shoulder injury simply required some rest and rehabilitation, which wasn’t much of a problem. But the patience it took for Green to wait on the sidelines as his team played without him, that was tough.
Of course, it wasn’t exactly easy for the rest of the Bulldogs’ offense either. Green had been a staple in the passing game and was easily Georgia’s top playmaker all season.
But with Green on the sideline, the Bulldogs managed to find new ways to move the ball, they ran it. In Georgia’s final four regular-season games, Green played less than 30 minutes of football but the Bulldogs tallied 1,008 yards rushing. In Georgia’s first eight games in which Green was a focal point, the ground game mustered just 877 total yards.
Walking off the practice field Wednesday, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo joked with Green that, in his absence, the Bulldogs had become a run-dominated offense like Georgia Tech that no longer needed its big-play receiver.
Bobo was kidding, of course, but Green said he wouldn’t have any problem with leaning on the running game going forward.
“As long as that keeps going, that will leave me one-on-one, and that’s good for me,” Green said. “The receivers we’ve got coming back and the running game, it’s not possible to double me.”
Chances are, the running game will get its touches in the Independence Bowl against Texas A&M, but Green is hoping to make an impact, too, and head coach Mark Richt is eager to see what he can do.
“That guy is special, we all know it,” Richt said. “It’s going to give A&M something else to think about besides trying to stop the run, so that’s what you want. You want a threat to score any time somebody tries to single cover him, and I think A.J has that ability, so they have to decide what they want to do as far as how they are going to stop the run and still manage A.J. So it’ll create a problem for them.”
Making matters worse for the Aggies, Green said he’s hoping to make up for lost time in the bowl game.
The injuries likely cost Green a 1,000-yard season and as Richt told him, a spot on the All-America team. while Green said he isn’t motivated by personal accomplishments, he wouldn’t mind using the bowl as an opportunity to re-establish his spot in the pecking order of great wide receivers.
“I always have something to prove, and missing some games, I didn’t make the All-America team like I wanted to,” Green said. “But I’m just going to come back strong just like I did in the first part of the season.”
Of course, Green’s not going to get caught up in the numbers. He made that mistake a year ago.
When Georgia took the field against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl last January, both Green and Mohamed Massaquoi were closing in on 1,000 yards for the season, and both hoped to vault past that mark with big games against the Spartans.
Instead, the Michigan State defense shut the duo down, and the two combined for just two catches for 22 yards.
“Going into that bowl game, me and Mo were just talking about, ‘OK, I need 43 yards for 1,000, whatever for 1,000,’ ” Green said. “But this time I’m just going into it thinking about playing and none of that other stuff.”
After all, Green’s simply happy to be playing again.
Spending time watching from the sideline was anguishing, but it also served as a good reminder about what’s important.
“You can’t take it for granted because any play can be your last play,” Green said. “That really brought some things to my eyes, just staying humble and playing every play like it’s your last.”