If someone took a glance at the USF football roster before the season opened and noticed 16 names listed at wide receiver other than true freshman S.J. Green, the safe assumption would have been to write off any chance for the newcomer to see much action this season.
Entrenched senior wide outs Huey Whittaker, Chris Iskra and Elgin Hicks, along with Joe Bain, Brian Fisher and the rest of the returning receivers stood above Green on the depth chart. And even with a spread-offense attack that utilizes four receivers on a regular basis, the door that led to playing time seemed to be nailed shut.
But when Green arrived at USF and began workouts during the summer preceding the season, coaches saw enough in the young wide out to warrant an opportunity, cracking open the door for field time ever so slightly. And when Iskra went down on the first day of official practice with an elbow injury, the door burst open, and Green found himself in the starting lineup for the Bulls’ season opener at Alabama.
“Coach (Jim) Leavitt said I had a chance to come in and get on the field,” Green said. “But I didn’t expect to start.”
It’s safe to say most of the coaches probably didn’t expect Green in the opening lineup either, but the coaching staff also didn’t expect that type of player coming into the program.
“The day he walked into campus, he’s been here to work,” receivers coach Tom Pajic said. “Everything he’s received, he’s worked hard for.”
“The thing that surprises you is not only does he have the ability, but he has maturity,” Leavitt said. “He’s is very mature for a true freshman- in other words, he is very disciplined in what he does. He works hard all the time, he doesn’t complain (and he) always focuses. And that probably is much more important than the athletic ability.”
What Leavitt said about Green’s maturity and discipline could be the key that helped him open the door this season. Simply put, Green loves to play football, and while some players may lag both physically and mentally during practice, Green tries to remain determined and focused at all times.
“Everybody has a day when you don’t want to go to practice, but you have to suck it up,” Green said. “When I go out, football is all I know, and I want to practice. That’s what I want to be able to do. I just approach it like football is my life.”
Green’s focus during practice has spilled over into both games for the Bulls this season. Although Green has only two catches this year, both came at key moments and both were big plays.
On third-and-12 early in the second quarter against Alabama, Green made a leaping grab over defensive back Charlie Peprah to give the Bulls a first down, keeping the drive alive while USF nursed a seven-point lead.
But his biggest catch of the season came in his home debut, as the Brandon native caught a 15-yard touchdown from Ronnie Banks in the third quarter against Nicholls State, putting USF on top for good.
“I felt ecstatic,” Green said of his first touchdown catch. “It sent chills through my body. I don’t know, I was very happy and just glad I could contribute.”
And Green’s contributions, although minimal number-wise, have helped him remain in the lineup.
“His play has been consistent,” Pajic said. “He goes against an All-American cornerback at Alabama and takes the ball away on a jump ball. Then against Nicholls State, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there, the play broke down and he was there.
“He’s a guy (now) who we need to count on.”
But when the current, extensive layoff, which translates into 20 days off the field, ends for the Bulls Sept. 27 in West Point, N.Y., Green may see the door to playing time close a little. Iskra is set to return against Army and the senior captain probably will be inserted into the starting lineup. The move likely will relegate Green to the sidelines more than he’s experienced this season, but Green isn’t thinking too much into the situation.
“I think I’ve earned the right to stay on the field, through what I’ve accomplished,” Green said. “I’m not too much concerned with him coming back and me playing. That’s just better for us, even though I may not get so much playing time.”
Leavitt said although Iskra definitely is a player the USF offense needs, it doesn’t necessarily mean the door will be shut on Green. In fact, as long as Green continues to make plays, the door will remain wide open.
“There is a way to get people on the field if they’re good enough,” Leavitt said.