ATHENS — Joe Cox had it all figured out when he arrived at Georgia.
Spend a year, two at the most, learning how it's done at the college level. Take over as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. Put up some brilliant numbers, maybe win a few awards, lead his team to a championship.
Then along came Matthew Stafford.
"Of course, when you dream everything up, you dream of coming in and playing kind of early and having a good career," Cox said Tuesday. "But things change. No. 1 draft picks come in and play in front of you. You've got to be prepared for anything."
For Cox, that meant waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
Now — finally — it's his chance to start. The Bulldogs are his team, but he's only got one shot to get it right.
"I'm just happy I'm finally getting a chance," said Cox, a fifth-year senior. "I want to make the most of it."
After being redshirted in 2005, which gave him a chance to watch senior D.J. Shockley lead Georgia to a Southeastern Conference championship, Cox took the field the following year ready to compete for the top job. But there was a new guy in the mix, a strong-armed freshman from Texas who was just too talented to serve much of an apprenticeship.
Stafford took over as the No. 1 quarterback midway through the '06 season. Cox, who got a chance to start all of one game while things were being sorted out, quickly realized he would spend at least the next two years as a backup — and maybe even the rest of his career.
But he never considered transferring. He made the best of his situation, taking pride in helping develop the up-and-comers on the second team and always staying ready in case something happened to Stafford.
"Of course, I had people telling me I should transfer," Cox said. "They were thinking I could just pack my bag, walk out and go somewhere else and play. For one, I don't know if I had anywhere else I could I have gone. Plus, there were too many things I had started here. I'm the type of person who thinks you should finish what you started."
Stafford bolted for the NFL after his junior season and was the top overall pick by the Detroit Lions, giving Cox one year to make his mark at Georgia.
He's philosophical about the unexpected journey his career has taken and seems to genuinely appreciate the chance he's getting.
"At a place like this, we recruit the best players at every position," Cox said. "It just so happened that we recruited a really good one (at quarterback). I had a chance to play behind him and learn a lot from him, too. I don't think it was a bad thing at all that I had to wait. I learned a lot from D.J. and Matthew."
Although Cox spent more time with Stafford, it's Shockley who provides the better roadmap for this final leg of the journey. After all, he was redshirted his first season and spent the next three backing up David Greene, leaving only one year as a starter. Shockley sure made the most of it; he now plays for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"I've thought about him," Cox said. "He handled it as well as anybody could have handled it and ended up having a great senior year. I'd love for my career to end up just like his."
Cox's teammates, much like Shockley's four seasons ago, respect the way Cox handled being on the sideline all those years. It's been much easier for him to grab the sort of leadership role expected out of any starting quarterback.
"Joe is a guy who put in his time here at Georgia," tight end Aron White said. "He's a guy the other guys like. They respect him, not only for how long he's waited, but the mentality and attitude he had while he was waiting. He never complained."
Coach Mark Richt can only hope Cox's patience produces the same results as Shockley's — especially with the 13th-ranked Bulldogs facing a difficult season opener at No. 9 Oklahoma State on Saturday.
"Joe has done a fantastic job of rallying the troops," Richt said. "He's been a team guy all the way. He bought in completely to the Georgia way. He's gained the respect of the coaches and the players because of that. When he says something, it's meaningful."
With Stafford's cannon of an arm, the deep passing game was a priority. Cox is likely to rely more on the short and medium routes, giving the tight ends a bigger role in the offense.
White, of course, welcomes that change."You have to play to your quarterback's strengths," the sophomore tight end said. "Joe has a whole lot of touch. That's something we struggled with the last two years, getting touch on our balls. Joe definitely throws one of the most catchable balls I've ever seen."