Jeff Herron was attending a homecoming game at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., on Saturday when his cellphone started blowing up. Text messages and phone calls came flooding in from area codes 912, 706 and 770. Everybody wanted to tell Herron the same thing.
“J.J.’s in the game against Tennessee,” they texted with multiple exclamation points, “and Gurley and Marshall are out!!!”
Herron, J.J. Green’s coach at Camden County High the past four years, and his wife made a beeline out of the stadium and hurried back to their hotel. This they had to see.
“We watched the second half and overtime,” said Herron, who is now coach at Prince Avenue Christian School in Athens. “I was scared to death the whole time. I was afraid he’d mess up.”
Green didn’t. The little back from Kingsland came through big.
The 5-foot-9, 183-pound Green came off the bench to rush for 129 yards on 17 carries and help the Bulldogs secure a 34-31 victory. Tailback Keith Marshall, who started the game, suffered a torn ACL early in the second quarter. Todd Gurley, a preseason all-SEC selection, was sidelined with an ankle injury from the previous game.
Herron was proud — and relieved.
“As a coach I was always worried he might not be big enough to play running back in the SEC,” said Herron, who won three Class AAAAA state championships at Camden County, including one with Green. “You look at Gurley and Marshall sitting there, with their size and all that, you just didn’t know if that’d be an issue. But I’ve been watching J.J. since he was playing rec league, and he’s always been one of those kids that never ceased to amaze me.”
The Bulldogs will look for more of the same from Green on Saturday against Missouri. He is in line to get his first collegiate start at tailback, as Marshall is out for the season, and Gurley remains sidelined. Georgia coach Mark Richt on Tuesday said Gurley is “doubtful” for Saturday because of the high-ankle sprain suffered in the first half against LSU on Sept. 28.
“We knew when we put (Green) into the role of playing tailback in the spring that this guy is pretty good,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He’s got some natural running skills, and he’s got some great balance. He’s more powerful than you might think. He looked like he could be a legitimate back.”
Green, who is being withheld from interviews by UGA this week, is one of several young Georgia players having to live out the mantra “Next Man Up.” Fellow freshman tailback Brendan Douglas had to play several important snaps against Tennessee and will again this weekend.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs also lost two wide receivers to knee injuries against Tennessee in Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley. Along with Malcolm Mitchell, that puts them down three in the primary receiver rotation for the season.
Former walk-on Rhett McGowan, current walk-ons Michael Erdman and Kenneth Towns and redshirt freshman Blake Tibbs move up the ladder at wideout and will be counted on fill the void Saturday.
“It’s the next man up, and we’re all ready,” said McGowan, a senior who has caught 26 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns at Georgia. “There’s no time to waste. We’re playing an undefeated Missouri team that’s very talented. The next man’s just got to step up and make plays when their number is called.”
Green certainly answered the call Saturday. Having the physical ability to do that is one thing, but the Bulldogs have been amazed by Green’s ability to master Georgia’s sophisticated offense.
That part was of little surprise to Herron. Green’s uncle, Donald Green, who raised him, was a member of the Camden County coaching staff. Herron vividly recalls an adolescent J.J. Green being in attendance at most of the coaches’ meetings.
“He was a ball boy for us, so he was always hanging out,” Herron said. “I remember he’d fall asleep under the table while we were watching film after games. So he certainly has a lot of football knowledge to go with his normal intelligence.”