In 2003, Cox stepped into a pressure cooker that, despite what outsiders might think, was very similar to what he’s facing now in battling Matthew Stafford for Georgia’s starting quarterback job. He was 16 years old and about to take over North Carolina’s most successful high school football program from quarterback Chris Leak, who was Parade Magazine’s national player of the year and one of the most highly recruiting players in the history of college football.
Independence High School had won 46 straight games and three consecutive state titles when Cox took the reins.
“He was expected to come in and win,” Bulldog quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo said. “Chris Leak was ranked everybody’s All-Mr. Everything, and people didn’t think (Cox) could do it there.”
He proved those people wrong, an experience that’s come in handy in the last nine months. Cox, who may start and will play Saturday when the No. 10 Bulldogs (4-0) take on Ole Miss (1-3) in Oxford, Miss., has been written off time and again in the Bulldogs’ quarterback competition.
“People wondered why we signed him here,” Bobo said, “but we saw a winner.”
That point is inarguable. Cox won all 31 games he started for the Patriots and left the team having extended the streak to five straight titles and 77 consecutive wins. (Independence won its 97th straight game Friday night.) There were never 90,000 people at his games or a dozen reporters at each of his practices then, as there are now at Georgia, but for Cox the burden of responsibility was no lighter, he said.
“I’m trying to approach all this talk about the quarterback race or controversy, whatever people want to call it, the same way our team back home approached the streak,” he said. “We knew what it was every week, but we never talked about it. We knew that if we focused on what we needed to focus on, the streak would continue and it did.”
By protecting Independence’s streak, Cox created one of his own. He hasn’t played in a loss since middle school, when Georgia teammate Mohammed Massaquoi’s Northeast Middle School beat his McClintock Middle School.
“(Massaquoi) played corner,” Joe Cox said. “We went over there, and they spanked us.”
That hasn’t happened since with Cox on the field. His team has won at least 34 consecutive games in which he has played.
“We liked everything we saw in the kid, but most of all we liked his winning qualities and his leadership qualities,” Bobo said. “That’s one of the main reasons we signed him, what he did in high school and the pressure he had to go through to perform.”
Cox, generously listed as 6-foot-1 in Georgia’s media guide, is 13-for-18 passing for 201 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in three games this year. The only time he didn’t see the field was against South Carolina on Sept. 9.
He looked to be out of the quarterback race until Saturday, when he came in with three minutes left in the third quarter and led two touchdown drives in a 14-13 win over Colorado.
“He came in there and he wasn’t all nervous and jittery,” fullback Brannan Southerland said. “He wanted to fight. He wanted to bring us back. He didn’t shy down from being behind 13-0.”
Pressure? What pressure?
“In recruiting sometimes you look for the perfect size or the perfect throwing motion or the perfect athlete, but the bottom line is you have to find football players,” Bobo said. “That’s what he is, a football player.”