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June 3, 2009
ATHENS, Ga. ? The phone conversation took place shortly after former Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford announced he would forgo his senior season to launch his pro career.
On one end of the line was Joe Cox, who would be replacing the soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. On the other end was a guy who understood what Cox was about to face.
"I just told Joe you've got to take it one day at a time," former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley said as he recalled that January chat with his ex-teammate. "You have to go out and just play, and it starts right here in the offseason, in January and February. You have to let them know you're going to be the guy to lead them."
There's a good reason Cox and Shockley sought out each other. Four years ago, Shockley was a fifth-year senior replacing star quarterback David Greene, who had ended his Georgia career with the NCAA record for career wins. Shockley now is regarded by Georgia fans as something of a folk hero, the guy who patiently waited his turn before leading the Bulldogs to an SEC title in his lone season as a starter, in 2005.
Cox was on campus as a true freshman that season; now the fifth-year senior hopes his own tale of perseverance has a similar ending.
"It's definitely something I can learn from," Cox said. "One thing I always noticed about him is he was respected by everybody, even when he didn't play a lot his first few years. He got a bunch of snaps, but he wasn't the starter and he still had the respect of the team. I think that comes from how he carried himself.
"I think that's kind of the same thing that's going on with me a little bit. Guys know I can play. Guys know no matter what, I'll be on their side and won't quit. I'm going to go compete for them. Guys really respect that. They want to be on my side and want this to be a good year not only for Georgia, but they want to see me be successful because I've stuck it out so long and have bought 100 percent into the Georgia way."
That's not just an idle boast.
Georgia coach Mark Richt asked each of his players after spring practice to name the team's leaders. Cox was mentioned more than any other player.
"Here's a guy who's started one game in his career three years ago and everybody on the team says, 'He's the guy,' " Richt said. "That happens because of the level of respect they have for him. You can break the huddle and any one of the other 10 guys in the huddle can say, 'What do I do on this play?' And he'll tell you and he'll know it.
"I really believe he can tell a defensive guy if he was out of position because he's that sharp."
Cox earned that respect by the way he acted on the practice field and in the locker room. Nearly every backup vows to practice each day if he were going to play the entire game that Saturday. Cox delivered on that promise.
"You've got to be a guy who does what he's supposed to do when nobody's looking," Cox said. "Coaches aren't always watching every rep a second-team guy gets because it might not mean as much as a first-team rep, but I tried to do everything right in practice and tried to do the right things off the field. I want to be a guy who can be counted on whether I was in a starting role or a backup role."
That kind of attitude has endeared Cox to his teammates. They understand that Cox took even more of a calculated gamble than Shockley by deciding to stay at Georgia. After redshirting as a freshman, Shockley at least had the comfort of knowing he'd have a chance to win the starting job his senior season after Greene exhausted his eligibility. If Stafford hadn't turned pro after his junior season, Cox would have spent his entire career as a backup.
That scary possibility caused friends at home in Charlotte, N.C., to tell him he should transfer. Cox never gave the idea serious consideration.
"I love this school," said Cox, a psychology major on track to graduate in December. "I love everything about it and love all my teammates. It would be extremely difficult to walk away from something like that. With all the bonds I've made with people around here, it would have been impossible to leave just to play a game.
"What I've got here as far as friendships, my degree and everything is way deeper than football. I never would have picked up my stuff and left and gone to another place."
Cox's love for Georgia began when he visited the campus as a teen to watch Bulldogs wide receiver Mario Raley, a former high school teammate at Charlotte's powerful Independence High. Cox left Athens knowing he eventually wanted to return for good.
"My wife's family [members] are all Gator grads, and my wife and I went to Duke," said Cox's father, Buster Cox. "We brought him up pulling for Duke and trying to get him to pull for the Gators, but he let all his relatives know he's a Georgia fan."
Cox never lost his passion for his school even while spending most of the past few seasons on the sideline. He came off the bench and rallied Georgia to a come-from-behind victory over Colorado in 2006 and started in a 14-9 victory over Ole Miss a week later, but that remains Cox's only career start.
That lack of experience isn't the only reason skeptics wonder whether Cox can lead Georgia into SEC title contention. He doesn't have the cannon arm that made Stafford such a prized NFL prospect. Nor does he possess the athleticism and versatility that helped Shockley lead Georgia to an SEC title. Cox, who is 6 feet 1 and 210 pounds, makes up for it with moxie and leadership.
Growing up with two older siblings helped Cox develop a competitive streak that remains with him.
"He was trying to keep up with them forever," Buster Cox said. "His sister was 8 years older and his brother was 6 years older. He'd go out and try to play basketball with his older brother and their friends, and they'd be knocking him all over the place. That's where [his competitiveness] came from ? not to mention that you're already competitive when you're red-headed."
In those pickup games, Cox rarely won. But Cox was 31-0 as the starter at Independence, and twice he was named the most valuable player of the state championship game.
"I hate losing more than I like winning," Cox said. "I think that's the attitude you have to have in football, and it definitely is the attitude you have to have in this conference.
"It's really weird when I see guys ? when we do happen to lose a game ? and it doesn't really hit them that they've lost, it doesn't seem like it really affects them as much as it would affect me. Hopefully with the guys we have in our leadership positions this year, we aren't going to let that happen."
Conventional wisdom indicates Georgia might lose a little more often this season. If Georgia couldn't win the SEC East with Stafford and star running back Knowshon Moreno, how are the Bulldogs supposed to challenge defending national champion Florida without those two first-rounders?
Then again, Georgia recently has fared its best when expectations aren't as high. The Bulldogs were picked to win the SEC in Greene's senior season and instead finished behind Tennessee in the East. One year later, Shockley led Georgia to an SEC title when the Bulldogs were supposed to finish behind Tennessee in the division.
"I like the position we're in," Cox said. "I like when people doubt you and don't expect a lot from you because I think it makes you want to work for something. That's the main thing we've been trying to tell people this offseason. There are going to be a lot of people who aren't expecting a lot from us. We need to surprise everybody with what we do."
If Cox leads Georgia to the SEC title that eluded the Bulldogs during the Stafford era, it won't surprise Shockley, who got to know Cox in 2005. He took Cox under his wing and even invited the freshman to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. The two continued to keep in touch after Shockley had moved on to the NFL.
"He's a little feistier than I am, but Joe has the same kind of demeanor I had," said Shockley, now a reserve quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. "He's not going to let outside things get to him. He knows what his ability is and knows he can lead the team. I believe he can do it, and I'm sure he has the utmost confidence in himself."
If Cox continues his penchant for doing the right thing and finding ways to win, he just might receive another phone call from Shockley next January. This time, though, he wouldn't be getting advice; he'd be receiving congratulations.
Adam Gorney of GatorBait.net contributed to this report.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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