Richt hands Georgia offense to senior Joe Cox

ATHENS - A wealth of individual stars made Georgia the star of the preseason polls one year ago.

Mark Richt is hoping improved team play makes up for the loss of the big names to the NFL.

After opening the 2008 season with its first preseason No. 1 ranking, Georgia finished 10-3 with losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech.

A 10-win season keeps the coach employed, but it didn't match expectations.

Richt must replace quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, and tailback Knowshon Moreno, another first-round pick. Richt also must replace second-round pick Mohamed Massaquoi, one of the top receivers in school history.

Richt said he hopes the 2009 Bulldogs are remembered for more than high draft picks.

'We're not interested in individual stars right now,' Richt said. 'We are interested in the team shining right now.'

The last time Georgia turned to a fifth-year senior as its new starting quarterback, the Bulldogs won the 2005 Southeastern Conference championship, with D.J. Shockley taking over for David Greene.

The Bulldogs are hoping from similar leadership from fifth-year senior Joe Cox, who finally has his chance after playing behind Stafford for three years.

'Matthew, Knowshon and Mohamed and some other guys made a lot of plays last year and they got a lot of attention,' Cox said. 'But that doesn't mean we didn't have other guys who could make plays, too. A lot of guys on this team will be getting more opportunities. That's football. Somebody moves on and somebody else gets an opportunity.'

Richt said Cox was a team leader even as a backup and has been embraced by the players as the starter.

'Joe has prepared for this moment,' Richt said. 'He has been preparing to be the starter for quite some time knowing that, in that game, he might not get in and really throughout his career he might not get in. I think people see that.

'He doesn't gripe. He doesn't complain. He works. I think players respect a guy who knows the system and can tell me what to do on any given play. Not many guys are in position to even learn that let alone are willing to do that.'

Cox only played in three games last season and has never attempted more than 13 passes in a game. His only start came in a win over Mississippi as a freshman in 2006, but he has had a long time to learn the system.

'He's been around, he's got a lot of experience in the program and he's seen it all,' fullback Shaun Chapas said. 'Everybody loves Joe. He's a great leader, and we all can follow his example.'

Sophomore Caleb King likely will open the season as the starting tailback, but Richard Samuel, Carlton Thomas, freshman Washaun Ealey and others could join King in a committee approach at the position.

A.J. Green is one of the SEC's top receivers. Green caught 56 passes and led the SEC with 963 yards receiving and eight touchdowns as a freshman last season.

Another strength is the offensive line, which returns all five starters plus tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who was considered the unit's top player before missing the entire 2008 season with a knee injury.

Linebacker Rennie Curran said the defense is looking for atonement after giving up more than 40 points in each of the team's three losses.

The defense is led by a trio of senior linemen: Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston.

SideBar: At a glance

2009 Georgia Bulldogs

· COACH: Mark Richt, ninth season, 82-22 career record.

· LAST YEAR: 10-3 overall, 6-2 Southeastern Conference (tied for first in Eastern Division); defeated Michigan State 24-12 in the Capital One Bowl.

· OFFENSE: Georgia must replace quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, tailback Knowshon Moreno, only the second player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and Mohamed Massaquoi, who ranks fourth in school history in receptions and receiving yards. Normally, such widespread losses would signal panic, but Georgia coaches are confident fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Cox and a committee of tailbacks will enjoy success. Seven starters return, including all five offensive linemen and tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who was considered the top lineman before his season-ending knee injury last year. A.J. Green, who caught 56 passes and led the SEC with 963 yards receiving and eight touchdowns as a freshman, is the top all-star candidate. Logan Gray is the probable backup to Cox. Freshman Washaun Ealey could win playing time at tailback, but sophomore Caleb King likely will open the season as the starter.

· DEFENSE: Georgia gave up more than 40 points in each of the three losses, and its 319 points allowed for the season is the most in school history. The average of 24.5 points allowed fell under the record-high 26.6 in 1990, when Georgia played 11 games and did not go to a bowl. A glaring weakness was the pass rush. Georgia had only 24 sacks, and no player had more than three. Rod Battle, who missed three games in 2008 with a neck injury, Demarcus Dobbs and Justin Houston could provide an improved pass rush. Houston, who is suspended for the first two games, had four tackles for losses and three sacks in Georgia's spring game. Senior defensive tackles Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston and junior linebacker Rennie Curran are the strengths of the unit.

· SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomore Blair Walsh made 15 of 23 field goals last year, with three of the misses from beyond 50 yards. Drew Butler, the son of former All-America kicker Kevin Butler, replaces punter Brian Mimbs.

· KEY LOSSES: QB Matthew Stafford, RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, FB Brannan Southerland, DT Corvey Irvin, P Brian Mimbs, CB Asher Allen, LB Dannell Ellerbe, DE Jarius Wynn, S C.J. Byrd.

· OPENER: Sept. 5 at Oklahoma State.