If Herschel Walker is recognized as the most dominant three-year offensive player in Georgia football history, perhaps A.J. Green can lay claim to the two-and-a-half-year label.
Green announced Sunday afternoon that he will forgo his final season in Athens and enter the 2011 NFL draft. The 6-foot-4, 212-pounder from Summerville, S.C., amassed 166 receptions for 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns in his Bulldogs career, but he missed three games in 2009 because of injuries and four games this past season due to an NCAA suspension.
"I think this is a great opportunity for me," Green said. "This has been a longtime dream since I was a little boy, and I felt like my skills were up to par to make this jump. I felt like I proved myself in one of the best conferences in college football from day one, and I felt like I could easily make this next step to the NFL and do the same."
The Bulldogs produced the draft's No. 1 overall pick two years ago when quarterback Matthew Stafford, who bypassed his senior season, was selected by the Detroit Lions. Green has a chance to give Georgia two No. 1 picks in a three-year stretch as the highest-rated offensive prospect according to longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was previously Kiper's top talent but announced last week that he was returning for his redshirt junior season with the Cardinal.
Kiper ranks Green as his No. 3 prospect overall behind Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who has said he will skip his senior season, and Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who is expected to announce his departure later this week. The Carolina Panthers have the first pick in April, and Green said he has a bunch of family members who would love making that trip.
"A.J. has made an immeasurable impact on our team over the past three seasons, and we wish him nothing but the best," coach Mark Richt said. "I have enjoyed the blessing of working with him and getting to know his family, and we wish him all the success in professional football. Once a Bulldog always a Bulldog."
Green was a top-10 national prospect out of Summerville High and wasted no time making an impact, catching a 36-yard pass from Stafford against Georgia Southern on Georgia's fourth play from scrimmage of the '08 season. He made his first start the next week against Central Michigan and erupted in his fourth game with 159 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions during a 27-10 win at Arizona State.
After producing 56 receptions for 963 yards and eight touchdowns in earning Freshman All-America honors, Green's sophomore follow-up consisted of 53 catches for 808 yards and six scores. He was on pace midway through the '09 season to break the SEC record for career receiving yardage in three years, but that quest was halted by a bruised lung against Florida and a separated shoulder against Auburn.
Hopes of a decorated 2010 season stalled out of the gate when Green was suspended for selling his '09 Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000. He returned to set a single-season best with 57 receptions, which included a dazzling 3-yard touchdown at Colorado and a nine-catch, 164-yard showing at Auburn that yielded two touchdowns.
"I believe I had a great career at Georgia," he said. "Coming in as a freshman, I never thought I would have the opportunity that I have now. I just want to thank Coach Richt and all my coaches."
While Green played in 32 of a possible 39 games for the Bulldogs, Walker went 36-for-36 in games played before moving on to the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Walker also won three SEC championships and was 18-0 against conference foes, but Green played on teams that went 6-2, 4-4 and 3-5 in league play.
The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 nationally when Green arrived on campus.
"It hurt," Green said of never being on a championship team. "That's what I came here for."