Quarterback’s teammates believe in their offensive leader

ATHENS — For five years, Joe Cox looked forward to taking over Georgia’s offense. By the time his first start since 2006 had ended, he was dreading the fallout.

The feel-good story turned to outright panic for many Georgia fans after watching Cox, who had been a benchwarmer for the past three seasons behind Matthew Stafford, struggle to lead the Bulldogs’ offense in a 24-10 season-opening loss to Oklahoma State. And when the smoke cleared, Cox knew the questions would soon follow.

“After the game, me and Joe were the only ones in the locker room, just talking how people are going to be talking, and I was like, ‘Joe, don’t worry about that,’ ” wide receiver A.J. Green said. “ ‘You’re going to be fine. Just don’t worry about what people will be saying about you.’ He just had a little comment, but Joe doesn’t let that stuff get to him.”

Knowing the focus would be squarely on his performance — 15-of-30 passing with two turnovers and a number of poor throws — Cox accepted blame. He went around the locker room and stopped to talk to nearly every player who remained.

He consoled Georgia’s first-year starters on offense and reminded them that there was still a long season ahead of them.

He patted the defense on the back for a job well done and apologized for not handling his role in earning a victory.

Cox took his lumps, and he vowed to do better.

“He’s a tough kid, mentally,” head coach Mark Richt said. “He was in the locker room going around talking to just about every one of them, encouraging them for the future. That’s the good thing about Joe.”

While critics expressed concern this offseason about how Georgia’s offense would overcome the loss of the rocket-armed Stafford, who departed a year early to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, the Bulldogs’ coaches and players instead focused on the intangibles Cox brought to the table: fiery leadership, accurate passing skills and an intricate knowledge of the playbook.

After his debut as the new starting quarterback for the Bulldogs, however, Cox knew he hadn’t lived up to the expectations fans had.

“You want to come out and show everybody how hard you worked and show everybody how good you are,” Cox said. “It’s not a good feeling when it doesn’t happen, especially in that first game. You want to come out with a win, and when it doesn’t happen it’s a pretty disappointing feeling.”

The offense as a whole mustered just 257 total yards, the lowest output for the Bulldogs in nearly two years. While the running game had its moments, Richt said the passing game was problematic throughout.

The wide receivers struggled, with only Green mustering more than 6 receiving yards. The pass protection by the offensive line struggled at times, leading to a costly fumble by Cox after being sacked by Oklahoma State’s Shane Jarka. The receivers and tight ends compiled several drops in key situations, and Cox was slow to release the football and failed to hit several receivers in stride.

Added all up, it looked ugly, but Cox said the cause of the poor performance was an overwhelming desire to avoid the ugliness.

“I can only speak for myself, but it got to the point where I felt like a lot of people were pressing and when stuff wasn’t happening we were trying not to have a really bad play,” Cox said. “People were worrying about not making a mistake, and you can’t play that way, and I was one of the guys doing that.”

It wasn’t exactly the calm, cool, collected on-field management that fans were expecting, but tight end Aron White said the blame for the offensive struggles shouldn’t be placed entirely at the feet of its quarterback.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t get it done, but I don’t think that’s any reflection on Joe’s leadership,” White said.

It was a sentiment echoed by numerous Bulldogs in the wake of the team’s first 0-1 start in 13 years. In fact, rather than blame Cox for the sluggish start, many applauded his dedication to the team.

For three days prior to taking the field in Oklahoma, Cox was battling flu symptoms and was held out of Georgia’s final practice of the week. He took a separate flight from the rest of the team the day before the game, and Richt said Cox still wasn’t feeling well Saturday — although the quarterback refused to reveal the extent of his health woes, even to his coaches.

After the game, however, it wasn’t a virus that had Cox feeling sick. It was his performance.

But rather than lament the loss, Cox quickly turned to the same philosophy he has employed for the past five years. He looked to the future.

“He didn’t get down in the dumps about it,” tailback Richard Samuel said. “He understands that the offense as a whole didn’t get the job done. He brought the team together and said, ‘This is what happened, and this is where we have to improve.’ ”

That’s what the Bulldogs expect from their leader, wide receiver Michael Moore said. Identify the problems, find solutions, keep the spirits high. No one knows those lessons better than Cox.

The quarterback and his teammates will get a chance to prove that in their SEC opener Saturday against South Carolina.

“We can look a thousand times better,” Moore said. “We’ll go into South Carolina with a different focus. The whole offense is rallying behind Joe still.”

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