ATHENS – Three days before Georgia’s opening football game, coach Mark Richt still had no answer to the persistent question of whether an NCAA inquiry launched in July will affect the status of star wide receiver A.J. Green.
“Are you expecting A.J. to play Saturday?” Richt was asked at his post-practice media briefing Wednesday evening.
“A.J. Harmon? Yeah,” Richt replied, referring to a backup offensive lineman.
“Green,” the questioner corrected.
“You know I can’t talk about that,” Richt said. “It’s a good try, though. I just can’t talk. I don’t know the answer to anything other than I’m not supposed to talk about the situation. And I really don’t know.”
The NCAA informed Georgia in late July that it was launching an inquiry at the school -– part of a series of probes at multiple schools about football players’ dealings with agents. An e-mail from the NCAA to UGA stated that investigators planned to interview one Georgia player. Green has said that UGA officials asked him if he attended an agent-affiliated party in Miami and that he told them he did not.
Green repeatedly has declined comment, at Georgia’s instruction, about the NCAA matter. On Tuesday, Green was asked if he has any doubt he’ll be able to play Saturday despite the inquiry. He replied: “No. I don’t know. I can’t say anything.”
Green was the first of six players mentioned by Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo when he was asked after practice Wednesday what the Bulldogs’ receiver rotation will be in Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The NCAA also has issued no rulings on agent-related inquiries at North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama.
Two players linked to the investigations, North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin and South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, have been suspended from their teams’ opening games for what their coaches called “violation of team rules” unrelated to the NCAA probes.
A July e-mail from Marcus Wilson, the NCAA’s assistant director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities, to Eric Baumgartner, Georgia’s assistant athletic director for compliance, instructed Baumgartner to “refrain from disclosing the details of the investigation . . . [to] anyone except your athletic director and/or president” and to inform them “of the necessity of protecting the integrity of the investigation as well.”
The e-mail said the Georgia player would be interviewed “to determine his knowledge of or involvement in, directly or indirectly, any violations of NCAA legislation.”
Freshman Hutson Mason will play Saturday if Georgia uses a second quarterback against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“God forbid, [if] something happens to our starting quarterback Aaron Murray, Hutson would definitely play,” Richt said Wednesday night.
It’s not clear if Georgia would play Mason in the game without an injury to Murray.
“Hutson is the No. 2, and if the No. 2 goes in, it will be Hutson Mason,” Bobo said. “For me to sit here and say, ‘Hey, he’s going to play,’ I can’t. We got to play the game.”
Mason has worked throughout preseason practice as the No. 2 quarterback. Last season’s backup quarterback, Logan Gray, moved to wide receiver and missed much of preseason practice with a sprained ankle.
Branden Smith will open the season as Georgia’s No. 1 punt returner, Richt said.
Smith, a sophomore cornerback from Atlanta, welcomed the news.
“I’ve been wanting to play punt return ever since I got up here,” he said.
He said he takes a three-pronged approach to the job: “The No. 1 thing is catching the ball. No. 2 is holding on to the ball. And No. 3 is just do my thing. With my speed and the blocking up front, it should not be that hard.”
Carlton Thomas is Georgia’s No. 2 punt returner, Richt said.
When asked on the SEC coaches’ weekly teleconference Wednesday, Richt reiterated his belief that Georgia doesn’t need to play more than one BCS-level non-conference opponent per season.
“We’ve been doing it, but I don’t think we need to do it anymore, quite frankly,” Richt said. “And I don’t think anybody in the league needs to do it.”
Georgia’s non-conference schedule this year includes two games against BCS-level opponents: the annual game against Georgia Tech plus a trip to Colorado.
Richt rejected the idea that weak non-conference schedules could pose a public-relations problem for the SEC nationally.
“Let me ask you this: Who’s won the last, what, four national championships?” Richt said. “It’s been SEC teams. And I don’t think those teams have gone overboard on what they’re playing out of conference.”