ATHENS, Ga. — It was just a day or two after Georgia ended its 2008 season when Joe Cox picked up his phone and called former teammate D.J. Shockley. The Bulldogs’ incumbent quarterback, Matthew Stafford, had yet to announce his decision to leave school early for the NFL, but Cox had a suspicion the starting job soon would be his, and Shockley was an obvious mentor.
Four years earlier, the former Georgia quarterback had navigated a similar path to the one Cox saw ahead of him. A litany of stars had departed for the NFL, and the preseason prognosticators thought little of Georgia’s chances. A talented but inexperienced roster was in search of a leader. A fifth-year senior got his first taste of the starting quarterback job.
Shockley used his final season in Athens to lead the Bulldogs to an SEC title. Cox placed that first phone call — and many more — seeking advice to ensure a similar result this time around.
“I don’t call him and ask him tons of questions, but it’s just good to have someone who’s been through the same thing that you can talk to,” Cox said. “He always asks how things are going, and if I’m struggling with something or something’s been on my mind, I’ll tell him.”
Shockley’s 2005 team didn’t have the fame or experience of the one that preceded it, but there was something about the chemistry of that squad, something about Shockley’s leadership that allowed it to succeed.
Stafford is gone this season, and so too are star tailback Knowshon Moreno, veteran wideout Mohamed Massaquoi and a cast of other well-known veterans. But there’s something about Cox, some intangible ability to galvanize the players around him, that Shockley said is familiar.
“When he first got there, you could definitely see it just pouring out of him that he was a born leader,” Shockley said. “He had it in him to lead the offense, lead the team and lead at a place like the University of Georgia. It’s nothing new. I knew he had it in him way back when.”
The stars from last season are gone, but in their place are talented yet inexperienced players hoping to fill the void.
Wide receiver A.J. Green is Georgia’s lone returning star, but he is just a sophomore. A bevy of freshmen, including tight ends Orson Charles and Arthur Lynch and wide receiver Marlon Brown, figure to play key roles. In place of Moreno, the Bulldogs are likely to feature a committee of tailbacks, none of which has more than a few dozen carries in his career.
It’s a young group, but Cox has taken it upon himself to make sure the players develop quickly.
“He’s not that type of guy that’s going to curse at you, but he’s such a cool guy that you say, ‘I don’t want to disappoint Joe. That’s my guy, so I’m going to do my thing right,’ ” tailback Carlton Thomas said.
Despite the roster turnover, Cox refuses to believe the offense has to be less successful than the one Stafford and Moreno led.
The Bulldogs return a veteran offensive line, and Cox’s knowledge of the offense allows coaches to be as dynamic as ever calling plays. The athleticism and natural ability of many of the new players on offense give Cox plenty of weapons, too. But in spite of all that potential, the critics aren’t giving Georgia much of a chance against reigning national champion Florida in the SEC East, and that’s just the way Cox wants it.
“Our expectations haven’t changed,” Cox said. “We know a lot of people are probably overlooking us, and that’s probably the best thing for us. It’s made us have a good offseason, and we’re looking to keep rolling.”
Despite all the changes and the tempered expectations from fans and pundits, Cox’s excitement for the upcoming season never has wavered. He organized voluntary offseason workouts that had nearly 100 percent participation. He worked with the incoming freshmen, and he expects at least four or five to play big roles on offense this year. He believes his team can win, and he has the rest of the Bulldogs convinced he is right.
“He has a confidence about himself that no matter what happens we’re going to always prevail,” left tackle Trinton Sturdivant said. “That’s something that Stafford had, too, but with Cox it’s more like, when you look at him, you know you’re looking at a champion, and his energy feeds into you to do the best you can. It’s just the confidence he gives off.”
It’s not hard for Cox to exude enthusiasm this season. He believes the Bulldogs have what it takes to be great. The path to another SEC title won’t come easily, but Cox has seen it done before. And while there won’t be big-name stars in the huddle when the Bulldogs play Oklahoma State to start the season, Cox already has the template to win without them.
“We have guys that can play, and we’re going to do our best to make plays and be successful as an offense,” Cox said. “It’s not like because those guys left we’re packing up and saying ‘OK defense, win games for us.’ We want to be successful, too, and we’re doing everything we can.”