The debate surrounding college players transitioning from spread offenses to the NFL game usually focuses on quarterbacks.
What about running backs?
The Packers are going to find out with Alex Green, their third-round draft choice out of Hawaii. The good news is the thousand-yard rusher from the Rainbow Warriors' prolific spread attack is a quick learner, according to Hawaii running backs coach Brian Smith.
Following his two junior-college seasons at Butte Community College in northern California – already known for having produced quarterback Aaron Rodgers – Green didn't arrive at Hawaii until the day before summer training camp in 2009.
He had to absorb the spread's pass-protection responsibilities, run looks and receiving duties all through full-speed camp reps. Even though he wasn't entirely proficient in the offense that first year, he still managed as a backup to earn more carries than Hawaii's starting running back by season's end.
"From day one we're throwing him in with the first team and getting him a lot of reps to get him to learn the stuff as fast as we can, because we knew he was very talented," Smith said. "He was real good with film, kind of a visual learner, seeing things in practice, so he picked up what we were doing pretty fast."
That could prove helpful to Green the longer the NFL's current labor situation drags out. Just as at Hawaii, his first practice might be the training-camp opener. He'll have his years at Butte in a more traditional offense to lean on, too.
One of the more intriguing things about Green is his size for a young, explosive back, but he didn't come to Hawaii ready-made in that respect, either.
Smith said Green first arrived weighing less than 215 pounds, but after he got a full offseason of training in prior to the 2010 campaign, he was up around 230 and evolving as a player.
"He wasn't probably eating as well as he should have been at junior college," Smith said, half-jokingly. "That change in his body for his senior year made a huge improvement in his game and his confidence and all that."
Last season, Smith improved in two areas that went hand-in-hand. As he became a more physical blocker in pass-protection, he also got better at powerfully finishing his runs.
It all came together late in the year on the road at New Mexico State, when Green obliterated a 50-year-old single-game school record by rushing for 327 yards and three TDs on just 19 carries. The previous school record was 270 yards, set in 1960 by Pete Wilson.
According to Smith, the Aggies were trying to slow down Hawaii's offense with man-to-man coverage on every receiver, leaving them light at the line of scrimmage to defend the run. When Hawaii's receivers ran their defenders out of the picture, Green usually had just one tackler to beat to reach open field.
"Once he broke the line of scrimmage, he was off to the races," Smith said. "He did a great job of making that first guy miss to give himself a chance to make some big plays."
Green had six runs of at least 28 yards in that game, including touchdowns of 33 and 45 yards and non-scoring bursts of 62 and 71 yards.
What should excite the Packers the most about Green, Smith said, is that he isn't a beaten-up college back who shouldered a 200-carry load every year for four years. He had more than 150 carries in a season only once, with a four-year total between Butte and Hawaii of 560 totes.
"I don't think he's necessarily peaked," Smith said. "He's just going to improve a ton and keep getting better for them. I think he's just scratched the surface of what he's going to do."
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