NEWS

Justin Green happy with decision to play for Illinois rather than Ohio State

John Supinie

Mother knows best. Just ask Illinois sophomore cornerback Justin Green.

Linda Green advised her son to play cornerback in college. He didn't listen. After first committing to play cornerback at Ohio State, Green changed his mind months later and bit on an offer to sign with Illinois after coach Ron Zook promised him a chance to compete at running back. A year into his career as a college running back, the speedy Green moved to cornerback, where he starts against No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday.

One of these days, Green said, he'll face an I-told-you-so moment with his mom.

"She hasn't thrown that out there,'' he said. "I'm pretty sure she will sooner or later.''

Giving up a chance to play at a college powerhouse is tough, but Green appeared content with his decision despite playing on a team picked to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten after winning just three games last fall in his freshman season. Seldom used behind junior running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, Green requested a move to cornerback after rushing for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries last season.

Days later, the defensive backfield shuffled because of injuries to cornerback Terry Hawthorne and safety Supo Sanni. About a week after the move to defense, Green started the season opener against Missouri.

"I can't lie - I was definitely nervous and didn't know how things would go," he said. "I had confidence in my ability. I like (cornerback) more than I thought I would. Coming out of high school, I didn't think I would like corner. I thought it would be too much for me.

"Running back, at the time, seemed more natural to me. I thought corner would be too much thinking. I thought it would slow my game down.''

He doesn't regret turning down Ohio State because Illinois gave him a chance to try it at running back.

"If I was at Ohio State, I would be thinking in the back of my mind what kind of running back I would have been,'' Green said.

Even if Green is OK with it, there are others who have a hard time digesting why he's playing cornerback at Illinois instead of Ohio State. His family packed away the Buckeyes gear and bought Illini stuff, but not everyone is happy.

"It's sort of not fair, is it?'' Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "He's supposed to be playing corner for us. What are you going to do? You make decisions, handle the adversity and deal with what comes your way, and that's obviously what he's doing. He's got great speed out there.''

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Green rushed for 1,069 yards and 21 touchdowns to lead Louisville Male High School to the Class 6A state semifinals as a senior, when he also played cornerback/linebacker.

Rated the No. 1 player in Kentucky by SuperPrep, Green had the speed, just like Tressel suggested. According to Illinois, Green timed a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, and he twice won the Kentucky state championship in the 100-meter dash. He was also a 200 state champ as a junior.

"We just knew Justin, with his frame and body, that he was a natural corner,'' said his brother Marcus, who played defensive tackle at Ohio State from 2002 to 2005. "A lot of people think he has a chance to be one of the most talented corners in the country, just because of his athletic ability and speed.''

Mom had her own reasons.

"Just being a mother and watching what a running goes through with all the hitting and pounding, that's a pretty tough position,'' she said.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said he must still expand Green's responsibilities. Green has 19 tackles and four passes broken up.

"He's starting to have a little bit of a comfort zone,'' Koenning said. "We've been limited in the things we've asked him to do. We need to broaden our package with him. We haven't done much of it. I've got to do a better job of getting him to take the next step.''

Tressel sees a difference in the Illinois defense, which has improved numbers from a year ago.

"There seems to be a good command of what they're doing,'' Tressel said. "There seems to be a good order. I thought they should have beat Missouri. They had every opportunity to do that.''

NOTES: Illinois wide receiver Eddie McGee will be limited after missing one game with a sprained ankle. Fullback/tight end Zach Becker (broken foot) is doubtful. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne (broken foot) isn't expected to play. Bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan and guard Hugh Thornton, who both started the season opener, will play but not start. Buchanan was charged with DUI in early September and missed the last two games. Thornton was arrested during a late-night incident over last weekend. Other discipline would be handled internally.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.

Illinois (2-1) vs. Ohio State (4-0)

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium (62,870), Champaign

Series record: Ohio State leads 62-30-4

Big Ten records: Both teams 0-0

Last meeting: Ohio State 30-0 (2009)

Rankings: Ohio State is No. 2

Radio:

TV: Big Ten Network

The line:

Coaches: Ron Zook, 23-40 in sixth year at Illinois, 46-54 in ninth year overall; Jim Tressel, 98-21 in 10th year at Ohio State, 233-78-2 in 25th year overall.

NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 18th, 229.0; passing 112th, 130.0; scoring 70th, 25.3; total 75th, 359.0. Illinois defense -- rushing 25th, 102.3; passing 77th, 230.7; scoring 27th, 16.0; total 48th, 333.0. Ohio State offense -- rushing 14th, 240.2; passing 29th, 266.5; scoring 3rd, 49.2; total 8th, 506.7. Ohio State defense -- rushing 5th, 71.0; passing 26th, 169.2; scoring 19th, 14.5; total 5th, 240.2.

Notable: Illinois is 9-11 vs. the Buckeyes in the last 20 meetings between the teams. Only Michigan has more wins over Ohio State during that span. But Illinois hasn't defeated Ohio State in Memorial Stadium since a 10-7 win in 1991. ... Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure has four straight games of 100 yards or more rushing to tie a school record. Ohio State hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 games, dating to 2008. ... Zook is a native of Loudonville, Ohio, who was defensive backs coach at Ohio State from 1988 to 1990. ... Ohio State's defense forced 13 turnovers in the first four games, and the Buckeyes rank second nationally in turnover margin (plus-2.5).

Quotable: "Their defense is a step ahead of perhaps where it was a year ago.'' -- Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, on the Illini defense.

Prediction: Ohio State 34, Illinois 13