Georgia Football: Why J.J. Green Is Dawgs' Most Important Newcomer on Defense

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Georgia Football: Why J.J. Green Is Dawgs' Most Important Newcomer on Defense
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

On the surface, J.J. Green’s recent move from running back to cornerback is much ado about nothing. 

Green, a sophomore in 2014, is a talented athlete with a diverse skill set.  He seemed predestined to a role as a reserve in a crowded backfield—at least for next season. He will now get the opportunity to compete for a spot on the very shallow defensive back depth chart.

At first glance, this personnel change is a matter of supply and demand that benefits both Green (as he seeks playing time) and the team (as it seeks cornerbacks). 

The running back position will open up for players like A.J. Turman (a redshirt freshman) and recent signees Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to back up returning producers Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas.  Meanwhile, Green’s athleticism will bolster the cornerback ranks and hopefully further the improvement of a unit that was mostly disappointing in 2013.

But looks can be deceiving.  This position change is a far cry from a non-story. 

To the contrary, J.J. Green is now poised to be the most important newcomer on this revitalized Georgia defense.

 

Switching Sides

A closer look at Green’s production as a true freshman tells a more complete story.  Although he received fewer offensive touches (both runs and receptions), he held his own relative to other recent freshman stars at Georgia:

Recent Freshman Running Back Stars
Year Freshman Running Back Offensive Touches Offensive Yards Yards Per Touch
2013 J.J. Green 80 488 6.1
2012 Todd Gurley 238 1502 6.3
2012 Keith Marshall 128 850 6.6
2011 Isaiah Crowell 193 909 4.7
Average 159.8 937.3 5.9

Sports-Reference.com

And although Green received about half the touches of his recent freshman counterparts, that lack of usage is easily explained by surrounding personnel.  Isaiah Crowell took over as a true freshman after returning veterans Caleb King and Washaun Ealey left Georgia early.  Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were the team’s two featured backs following Crowell’s departure in 2012.  Green, on the other hand, spent the first portion of the season stuck behind both Gurley and Marshall.

Yet when Green got his chance thanks (unfortunately) to injuries suffered by Gurley and Marshall, he was a star.  With both players out, Green led the ground attack in an overtime road victory over Tennessee in October by accounting for 129 yards on 17 carries.  He followed that outing with 82 rushing yards and 42 yards receiving against a Missouri team that won the SEC East.

Best Ground Games By Recent Freshmen
Player Opponent Rush Attempts Rushing Yards Yards Per Carry
J.J. Green Tennessee 17 129 7.6
Todd Gurley Vanderbilt 16 130 8.1
Keith Marshall Tennessee 10 164 16.4
Isaiah Crowell Ole Miss 30 147 4.9

Sports-Reference.com

Green was not merely an “also ran” in Georgia’s backfield.  Rather, with Keith Marshall still fighting back from a torn ACL, he was slated to begin 2014 right where he left off—as Todd Gurley’s top backup.

Jeremy Pruitt did not simply acquire an underutilized talent; he stole a big-time contributor.

 

Emphasis on Defense

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Green's athleticism translates well to the defensive backfield.

J.J. Green’s move to defense goes a long way in underscoring Georgia’s renewed emphasis on defensive improvement.  The Pruitt hire may have fired fans up and the strong closing before signing day seemed indicative of better things to come, but Green’s position change implies urgency within the program.

According to GeorgiaDogs.com, Pruitt offered the following take on the future of Georgia’s defense when he was announced as coordinator back in January:

There's one thing about football coaches. Everybody may not agree with who we always play and all of that, but I think we always try to play the best players. We'll do that, and we'll give everybody an opportunity. I think competition is great. I think it's great, so we'll try to figure that out. The thing about it is that the guys who are the best in the spring aren't always the best in the fall, so it's who can do it over time. We've never arrived.

J.J. Green, the former running back turned defensive back, is a testament to that philosophy.

Competition is important to Pruitt but its only value is in ensuring that the best possible defensive players take the field each and every game.  Green, Pruitt believes, can be one of the best.

Pruitt coyly admitted to Chip Towers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the economics of it all came into play, saying, “Well the big thing is just the lack of numbers.  You can never have too many corners.”

But as Richt candidly pointed out to Towers, Pruitt was proactive in getting Green over to the defensive side of the ball.  “Coach Pruitt, looking over the situation and remembering J.J. through the recruiting process, he wanted to move him over to see what he could do.”

And that’s the type of aggressive experimentation this defense has been missing.  For Pruitt—and the Bulldogs as a whole—putting the best players on the field may be a process of trial and error.  But it’s also a priority and a chance worth taking, even when it involves a running back of Green’s caliber.

Now it's time for Green, who was initially recruited as an athlete and pegged to play either side of the ball, to embrace the competition and help the defense.  He didn't shy away from the challenge as an undersized true freshman running the ball in the country's best college football conference.  

Expect a similar fight from him in the secondary.

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