March 6, 2009

By Adam Caparell

Some might call him crazy, but Mark Richt honestly believes his team is in pretty good shape offensively with spring practice right around the corner.

The only glaring problem the Georgia coach sees, as he scans his roster, is not at quarterback or tailback, but at tight end.

Tight end?

Yes, Richt is serious and no, he hasn't forgot that he will be without the services of his two most dynamic, and indispensible, offensive players from last season. You remember them, the ones that are about to be first round picks in April's NFL Draft?

What problem?

"You know, everybody will say, `Gosh, you lost Stafford.' And that is a big deal, there's no doubt about it. But I think there's a peace around our program knowing that Joe is at the helm right now."

Georgia Coach
Mark Richt

Losing the likes of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, two of the top quarterbacks and tailbacks, respectively, in the nation last season, usually would give a coach a giant case of agita in the off-season. But Richt isn't letting on that he's overly worried about their replacements when just about every Bulldog fan is. 

"I do think we have a lot of very strong answers for some of the seniors who are gone and a couple of the juniors who have taken off," Richt said. "You know, everybody will say, `Gosh, you lost Stafford.' And that is a big deal, there's no doubt about it. But I think there's a peace around our program knowing that Joe is at the helm right now."

Joe, the kid ready to step up and take Stafford's place under center is the relatively non-descript Joe Cox. The senior-to-be doesn't have the stats - 452 career yards passing and 5 TDs over three seasons - or notoriety to match Stafford, but he just might have the biggest shoes to fill of anybody in the SEC this fall.

But if that distinction doesn't suit Cox, then it very well could suit whomever Richt eventually anoints to succeed No. 24.

In losing Moreno, the Bulldogs will be without the services of one of the most electrifying runners in the country, not to mention their leading scorer in 2008. Last season, Moreno racked 1,400 yards rushing just as easily as he wowed crowds with his acrobatic leaps and plunges into the end zone. In just two seasons, he ran for 2,736 yards and 30 TDs, leaving a highlight reel almost as impressive as all-time Georgia great Herschel Walker's.

So just who, exactly, is going to step up and establish himself as Georgia's top backfield threat this year? Richt has his options.

"There's absolutely an answer, or answers, within the group of young men we have right now," Richt said. "I don't think there's any question we're going to have high production from our tailback position. It's just going to be interesting to see who comes to the forefront in that role."

Caleb King and Richard Samuel, both sophomores, are the two names generally considered to be the favorites to battle it out for the starting nod. King, however, will have a decided advantage in the competition with Samuel expected to miss all of spring practice after undergoing wrist surgery in January.

King saw action in 11 games last season, playing the role of Moreno's backup before Samuel supplanted him mid-way through the season thanks to some poor pass blocking. But even if King doesn't win the job, don't automatically assume it'll be Samuel. Some have speculated he could eventually make the change to linebacker and others like Carlton Thomas - who could very well take over kick returning duties - or Washaun Ealey, a highly regarded running back the Bulldogs landed on signing day, are just two other names that will be in the mix. 

It all makes for a compelling position battle that's probably piqued Richt's interest more than any other on the field. Even the tight ends. And whoever wins the battle at running back can rest assured knowing he'll be running behind what Richt is calling one of the most mature offensive lines he's ever had.

But everything will take a back seat this spring and summer to the development of the Bulldogs' new quarterback because - let's face it - it's always about the quarterback.

"There's still some thing to be proven, no doubt, but it's not like we have absolutely no clue who is going to be back there," Richt said.

While Richt never officially anointed Cox the Bulldogs new starter, the coach and the QB just knew how things were going to work out.

"Honestly, we've never really had a conversation about it when it first happened," Cox said. "It all just kind of happened at once."

When Stafford announced that he wasn't going to return for his senior season, Cox - the next man on the depth chart - quietly assumed the position. There was no press conference, no news release, no headlines. Richt - and especially Cox - didn't find it necessary.

A few days after his first session talking to the media, Cox found himself in the weight room when Richt walked through. The coach stopped and told his new quarterback, "I just want to let you know that I have all the confidence in the world in you."

Then they both went about their business. 

Cox never needed a sit-down with Richt or a pep talk to know his role. It was always understood. Just like it's understood that despite the fact both don't exactly have long chats in the coach's office, they're clearly on the same page. Richt gets reports on the team from Cox when the two cross paths. The relationship isn't built on a lot of talk. It's all understanding.

Like Richt's understanding that Cox will bring a sense of leadership and a firm grasp of the offense despite the fact that he's only won one game in his Georgia career.

"I've seen enough of Joe to be confident. Like any quarterback, he'll need some help around him," Richt said.

You have to go all the way back to 2006 to remember that one game. It came against Ole Miss and it was Cox's only start as a Bulldog.

But that game seems like ages ago and that team was a very different team than the one Richt will feature this fall.

The 2009 Bulldogs will be coming off a season widely considered disappointing - it was BCS Championship or bust for the Bulldogs last summer and needless to say a Capital One Bowl victory wasn't exactly how Georgia envisioned capping the season. They'll be led by a bunch of new faces, most notably Cox, and the changes have made Richt revaluate how he handles his players. It's prompted him to change his approach heading into the year's first practice. This spring, he's running a much tighter ship.

"My mentality right now is to treat this team as if it's the first year I've been coaching at Georgia and we're setting the tempo, setting the bar and expecting these guys to reach that bar and they've been fighting like mad to do that," Richt said.

Richt's first year at Georgia was 2001 and that year one of his quarterbacks was D.J. Shockley, who some are comparing to Cox. After playing parts of three seasons, Shockley finally got his chance as a senior and made the most of it, leading the Bulldogs all the way to the Sugar Bowl in 2005.

Shockely had some big shoes to fill back then, taking over for David Greene. Now it's Cox's turn and he could be taking over the potential No. 1 pick.

But it's no big deal, certainly nothing to worry about. Richt's got other positions to fret over. Namely tight end.