Getting into the Habit

Getting into the Habit

ATHENS – For a superstar wide receiver, A.J. Green is about as affable as they come. Any inquiry as to the ability of a teammate is invariably returned with a confident appraisal of that player's immense skill or, at the very least, significant potential.

On the basketball court, however, Green doesn't just hand out the compliments to anyone who shows up in a pair of sneakers. He takes his regular pick-up games at Georgia's Ramsey Center seriously, and it takes a lot to impress him.

So it should probably be regarded as a true badge of honor for Brandon Boykin that Green offers immense praise for his work in both sports. A cornerback, of course, is the receiver's natural enemy. And a cornerback who can upstage Green on the hardwood, too, is someone truly deserving of respect.

"You ought to see him on the basketball court just going up and dunking on people," Green said. "It's amazing how someone his size can get up so high."

Boykin's exploits aren't limited to the hardwood.

This spring, the rising sophomore turned plenty of heads in his quest to land the starting job at short corner. From his quick feet to his natural instincts to that unmistakable leaping ability he displays so routinely in his pick-up basketball games, Boykin has made a habit of making plays.

At 5-foot-10, Boykin isn't drastically overwhelmed by many wide receivers as it is, but his height hardly tells the whole story.

Like Green, Boykin has an immeasurable quality that allows him to make plays that seemed utterly out of his reach at first glance. When he sees his chance to get to the football, he can bend, he can twist, he can stretch. And he can jump – man, can he jump.

Toward the end of spring practice, each player tested his vertical leap. Boykin jumped 42 inches – easily the top mark on the team. Days later, Green recited the statistic from memory. It was hard to forget.

"He's just got the athletic ability to go up and deflect the ball," Green said. "He high points the ball very well."

Quarterback Joe Cox got a firsthand taste of Boykin's abnormal leaping ability during a spring scrimmage.

On one play, Cox had plenty of time in the pocket and found Tavarres King – a 6-foot-1 receiver with a healthy dose of athleticism himself – streaking down the sideline with Boykin in tow.

A crafty veteran, Cox lofted a deep fade to his receiver, secure in the knowledge that he'd placed the football where only King could grab it.

He was wrong.

"It looked like Boykin was seven feet off the ground," Cox said.

Boykin hasn't limited his tormenting of passers to Cox, but as the veteran leader among a group of inexperienced quarterbacks, he knew enough to realize this wasn't a typical offseason phenomenon. Boykin was the real thing.

"He's definitely one of those freak athletes who is super strong, fast, can jump, everything," Cox said. "He's going to be a big-time playmaker in the secondary."

Boykin earned plenty of raves for his practice performances even last season, but he didn't have many chances to show his skills on the field on Saturdays.

Boykin appeared in all 13 games in 2008 as a true freshman, but he played sparingly, mostly in nickel packages or as the occasional substitute for two-year starter Asher Allen.

As cornerbacks in the SEC go, Allen was widely recognized as one of the best. His physical style and willingness to hit made him an ideal short corner – and an ideal mentor for Boykin, who modeled his own game after the man ahead of him on the depth chart.

When Allen announced he was leaving Georgia in January to enter the NFL draft a year early, suddenly an opportunity presented itself. Boykin was the obvious candidate to step in, and his goal was to ensure the secondary wouldn't miss a beat during the transition.

"The short corner is a person that has to be real physical, be in on the plays, and Asher played it how it was supposed to be played," Boykin said. "So I'm trying to come in and make plays like Asher did, get in on all the tackles like he did, and I feel like I'm stepping into the position. But I've still got a lot to learn."

For all his skills, Boykin is still raw. His reps at nickelback helped him learn the defense and grow more accustomed to the speed of the game in the SEC, but Boykin admits he's still a work in progress.

While many players with his immense athletic ability may be inclined to rest on their natural skills, however, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said Boykin has worked as hard as anyone in camp to improve this spring.

"He makes mistakes, and that's understandable because he's a young player," Martinez said. "But he cares about it, he wants to correct it quickly, and he's going to work at it."

Of course, that doesn't mean that natural athleticism doesn't make the job a little easier.

Boykin said he doesn't always know exactly where he's supposed to be or what he's supposed to do on every play, but he knows where the football is, and he arrives at that destination quickly.

At this point, he's less a true cornerback and more a natural playmaker.

"There's something about Brandon that he finds a way to make a play," Martinez said. "He's got good ball skills and has a knack for stripping the ball, catching the ball, just his athleticism is getting him in position to make plays."

It's a simple lesson that every young player is taught by Georgia's coaches: Find the football, then take the football.

It's the baseline from which Boykin works at all times. He's desperate to improve, to earn his stripes the way Allen did before him. But the advantage Boykin has over so many others is that, even when he's not perfect, he seems to find himself in the right place at the right time.

Call it luck, but Green knows better. So does Cox. And King.

Everyone who has watched a ball tipped away or stripped from his grasp this spring knows Boykin has that special… something. Raw skill, inherent ability, a sixth sense. Whatever it's called, Boykin just gets it done.

"It's just being hungry for the ball, trying to run every play," Boykin said. "The coaches always say good things happen to you if you run to the ball and I feel like I'm making good things happen to me."

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