Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Uncertainty engulfed J.J. Green.
The running back had just transferred from the University of Georgia, where a fruitful freshman season was followed by a frustrating sophomore one. It's often thought that a transfer brings a player relief, that he can chart a more hopeful path for himself.
For Green, it only brought him dread, a creeping feeling that he had thrown everything away.
"After I transferred from Georgia, I thought my football career was over, to be honest," the Kingsland, Ga., native recalled of that time in the winter of 2014. "My aunt, she was like, `Jay, it's not over. Just get in school. Whoever takes a chance on you, we're going to go from there.'"
For a while, Green thought he would never go to school again. His academic and athletic futures, once so intertwined, were now flapping like loose threads.
"Georgia Tech called the next week," he said.
As he recounts the story, the angst in Green's voice stands in sharp contrast to his normally affable nature. But it also reveals why Green, now a redshirt senior, plays with such passion and unselfishness for the 1-1 Yellow Jackets.
"That was great for me to have this coaching staff take a chance, man - Coach O [slot backs coach Lamar Owens] and Coach Johnson, just to give me a scholarship to come here and play," he said.
Green showed his ability to capitalize on second chances again the other week, when Georgia Tech hosted Jacksonville State at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Five days earlier, with the Yellow Jackets driving for a potential game-clinching score against Tennessee, Green fumbled on a winding run inside the Volunteers' 20-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee recovered and drove for a game-tying touchdown. Georgia Tech lost 42-41 in double overtime.
The mistake gnawed at Green, but it also made him determined to make amends the following week.
"You're a football player. It's going to happen. You've just to come back stronger, really. I just had to prove to everybody I could do it. I'm not the type of guy to be down on it. I was just like, `Hey, it happens to the best of us.' Make a play next time," he said.
Green did just that, catching a 10-yard touchdown pass from TaQuon Marshall in the third quarter of Tech's 37-10 win over JSU. It was the first touchdown catch of Green's career. It also put him in some rare company: he became the first Yellow Jacket to record rushing, receiving and kick return touchdowns in his career since Drew Hill, who played from 1975-78.
Saturday's game against 1-2 Pittsburgh (12:20 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network) marks a callback of sorts to Green's best game at Tech. In their matchup last year, Green returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, then added a 10-yard touchdown run in the second half. It highlighted a junior season in which he made 10 starts and finished with 539 all-purpose yards.
Pitt comes in staggering, having allowed a school-record 676 yards in a 59-21 loss to No. 9 Oklahoma State last weekend. But Green remembers how soundly the Panthers played on defense last season. He also knows the last two games in the series have been decided by late field goals, with the Jackets losing both. History suggests another tight game. But Green believes the Yellow Jackets have an edge in the unlikeliest of places: kickoff time.
"The other team has got to go against that triple option and all those cut [blocks] early in the morning," he cracked this week. "Guys don't want to do that. They're just waking up. They don't want to do that. It's a 12 o'clock game. They've got to go against cuts early in the morning."
(When asked about Green's theory on his radio call-in show, head coach Paul Johnson quipped, "I wish we'd cut somebody, then we'd find out.")
The response was typical Green, an ebullient, ever-smiling senior who cheerfully embraces the ethos of the "Dirty A's," the self-appointed nickname of the Yellow Jackets' A-backs group.
"We do what is best and that's score touchdowns and block for each other. Whoever gets in, we know somebody's going to get the ball, somebody's not. As a brotherhood, we're going to make the blocks and make sure our brother gets where he has to be," he explained.
On Saturday, as he prepares for his 14th career game at Tech, Green will look to once again repay the program that rescued him from an uncertain future. That motivation is never far from his mind -- or recently, his sight. In May, Green graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in history, technology and society (his Twitter bio reads "An Educated Black Man A Georgia Tech Alum"). Before the start of preseason camp, he got a tattoo of Buzz, the Yellow Jackets' mascot, on his left forearm. It is surrounded by clouds, with a halo over its head.
Green's explanation for the design is succinct: "I honestly believe that Georgia Tech saved my life."
"It was rough," he said of that time after his transfer. "As a sophomore, being 19 years old, that was a tough season for me. But [with] God's grace, I bounced back. It's only the sky from here."=