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Chasing Calvin

Stopping Johnson is Georgia’s big chore

    ATLANTA — Every once in a while, Mark Richt will consider the possibilities: What if Calvin Johnson had signed with Georgia instead of Georgia Tech?
    Two years ago, Johnson would gotten a chance to work with David Greene, the winningest quarterback in major college history.
    Last year, the star receiver could have teamed up with D.J. Shockley, who led the Bulldogs to a Southeastern Conference title before moving on to the Atlanta Falcons.
    This season, Johnson surely would have made the transition a lot easier for freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has struggled to find a go-to receiver.
    ‘‘Oh, we had the ultimate interest in him,’’ Richt said, musing about his recruitment of Johnson. ‘‘We tried to get him as hard as we’ve tried to get anybody. There was no doubt about what we thought he could do on the football field and in the classroom and as a person. He was a national blue chip in that he had it all — the grades, the ability and the character.’’
    But Johnson, who grew up in Atlanta’s suburbs, wanted to stay a little closer to home, so he signed with the Yellow Jackets. On Saturday, the junior will likely be facing Georgia for the final time; everyone expects him to give up his final year of eligibility to become one of the top picks in the NFL draft.
    Even though quarterback Reggie Ball has completed less than 50 percent of his passes, Johnson has put together his best season yet for the No. 16 Yellow Jackets (9-2). He’s got 57 catches — more than twice as many as Georgia’s top receiver — for 886 yards and 13 touchdowns.
    Those numbers are even more impressive when taking into account that the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Johnson faces constant double-teams and gimmick defenses that are designed solely to shut him down.
    He can expect more of the same from the Bulldogs (7-4), who’ve done a good job on Johnson the last two seasons.
    He managed five catches for 44 yards as a freshman, with no play longer than 10 yards. He caught a 2-yard touchdown pass against Georgia last year, but that was Georgia Tech’s only score and he finished with only two receptions for 14 yards in a 14-7 loss.
    ‘‘They’ve doubled him quite a bit,’’ Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said. ‘‘And we’ve missed some throws to him that we thought we were going to have. It’s a combination of a lot of things.’’
    Johnson said he never pondered how things might have been different if he had chosen the state’s other school, even when the Yellow Jackets lost to Georgia the last two years. Overall, the Bulldogs have won five straight in the series.
    ‘‘Once I came here,’’ he said, standing outside the locker room at Bobby Dodd Stadium, ‘‘all that’s out the window.’’
    He’s not sure what to expect from Georgia this time around, though he knows there will be plenty of defenders around him.
    ‘‘They play a lot of zone, but you never know what you’re going to get from them,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘We’ll have to figure it out when we get to the game. From watching film, you really can’t tell too much. You can tell what they like to do, but you never know what they’re going to do on Saturday.’’
    Well, the Yellow Jackets do know one thing: Johnson isn’t likely to find himself in a lot of one-on-one scenarios.
    ‘‘I don’t really get a lot of man,’’ he said, breaking into a sly grin.
    The Georgia secondary is looking forward to the challenge, though there’s no one who comes close to matching up physically with Johnson. Paul Oliver comes the closest (6-0, 208 pounds) and will likely draw the bulk of the work — a challenge he’s actually looking forward to.
    ‘‘Anyone who covers Calvin, it’s a showcase game for them,’’ Oliver said. ‘‘Everyone knows he’s going to be one of the top picks. You know he has the accolades.’’
    But Oliver won’t be able to go it alone. The Bulldogs’ rather smallish secondary has to mix things up, hoping Johnson gets lost in the various zone schemes and doesn’t get left alone with someone who has no chance of covering him, considering his size and speed.
    It’s certainly not as simple as just putting two defenders on Johnson every time he breaks the huddle.
    Georgia Tech’s other receiver, sophomore James Johnson, has also put up better numbers (35 receptions, 519 yards, six TDs) than any of Georgia’s pass catchers.
    The Yellow Jackets also have a 1,000-yard rusher in Tashard Choice, and Ball is just as dangerous running the ball as he is throwing.
    ‘‘We can’t get too excited about doubling Calvin,’’ Richt said, ‘‘because James Johnson has really done a super job for them. He has really benefited from Calvin’s attention and Calvin’s ability and the way people have really tried to stop Calvin.
    ‘‘Overall, we’ve got to walk the tightrope between making sure we get enough people in there to stop the run and still not give Calvin too much room out there by himself.’’
    Of course, Richt wouldn’t have these concerns if Johnson had only picked Georgia a couple of years ago. Now, the Bulldogs’ coach can’t wait to see him move on to the NFL.
    ‘‘I hope it’s coming quick,’’ Richt joked.
    ‘‘I really believe he’s the first wide receiver to be picked in the draft, so if I were him, I’d be out of here. Sorry, Chan, I didn’t mean to say that.’’

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