Getting Rid of the Rust

ATHENS – A few days ago, Joe Cox was joking with a friend that, after so much time on the bench, he felt like he hadn't played football in 10 years. Wednesday, he learned he would have to shake that rust off quickly.

Actually, it has only been two months since Cox last saw action in a game against Florida, leading Georgia to its only touchdown. It has been nearly three years since he last started for the Bulldogs, however, but that will change next season with the announcement Wednesday that Matthew Stafford will forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft, leaving Cox atop the depth chart.

"I honestly never expected it to come like this, but I was always happy to stay, and I was ready for any situation," Cox said. "It feels good that now that I stuck around this long I'll have this chance."

The template for Cox's career path was actually set well before he arrived at Georgia. In head coach Mark Richt's early years with the Bulldogs, his offense was handled with precision by David Greene. On the bench, however, D.J. Shockley was a top recruit who couldn't manage to muscle his way into the starting lineup.

For four years, Shockley waited his turn, and when his opportunity came, he grasped the controls of the Georgia offense and led the Bulldogs to the 2005 SEC championship.

That was Cox's first season in Athens, and at the time, he couldn't have known he would follow in Shockley's footsteps. When Stafford arrived a year later as one of the nation's top recruits, however, it was clear that Cox wasn't the quarterback fans were clamoring to see.

He began his redshirt freshman season No. 2 on the depth chart, salvaged a game in relief of Stafford against Colorado, then earned a starting nod a week later. That would be the last time Cox would open a game under center.

Since then, Cox has been the dutiful backup – working just as hard as Stafford in practice, preparing for action he rarely had a chance to enjoy. Through it all, however, he earned the admiration and respect of his teammates – much the way Shockley had years earlier – and the experience, he said, has prepared him for the new responsibilities he's about to undertake.

"Joe is definitely one of our main leaders on this football team," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "He hasn't played a lot of football, but it's a tribute to him and how he carries himself that he's a team guy. I'm definitely disappointed that Matthew did not stay, but I'm very excited for Joe Cox, and I think the team is, too."

While Cox isn't guaranteed the starting job when Georgia opens its 2009 slate against Oklahoma State, Richt said someone will have to prove to be worthy of supplanting the fifth-year senior, and given the competition, that seems unlikely at this point.

Logan Gray will be the only other quarterback on Georgia's roster with any game experience when spring practice begins, but while he has seen action on special teams, the only snaps he has taken under center came in mop-up duty against Georgia Southern last season.

"It's definitely going to be valuable that he played in games, but at the same time, a lot of that time on special teams took away from his experience at quarterback," Bobo said.

While Cox may have the starting job locked up, Gray's athleticism and speed could make him an appealing change-of-pace player. Richt suggested that several packages could be designed to get the ball in Gray's hands while keeping Cox on the field for the majority of the snaps.

Georgia has two high profile recruits for 2009, too, and both Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger have already enrolled and will begin classes today.

Cox said he helped the two freshmen move in this week and is looking forward to working with them when spring practice begins.

"They were both excited, and I know the feeling," Cox said. "I know they can't wait to get to practicing and working out with the team, and I'm going to do as much as I can to help them out, too."

Cox said Gray often teases him about being the old man among the quarterbacks – a fact that has been a bit hard to grow accustomed to. But after four years waiting for his shot, he's glad to be armed with so much knowledge and experience.

"It's a big change knowing that I'll be getting the snaps, but it won't change as far as how I prepare," Cox said. "I studied the game plans as much as Matthew did, I had to know just as much as he did going into games. It's just going to be different because I'm going to be the one under center now."

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