With each long practice session or tedious meeting in the film room, there was the specter of Georgia receiver A.J. Green looming over the proceedings.
“That’s my focus,” Cox said. “I watch film and that's all coach talks about when we're tired. ‘You're tired? Well, A.J. Green ain't tired.’ Its our motivation."
A thousand miles away, Georgia’s defensive backs are losing sleep for precisely the same reasons. While Green offers an enormous challenge for Oklahoma State, the Cowboys have one of the country’s top receiving threats, too, in junior Dez Bryant.
The two won’t exactly be going head-to-head on Saturday, but their presence has already been felt in the opposing locker rooms and their skills have already helped their teammates prepare for the challenges ahead.
“A.J.’s a similar type of player so he gives us a great look,” Georgia safety Reshad Jones said. “You get to see a great player like that knowing that we’ve got to face another great player, it puts us a little bit ahead.”
Green is Georgia’s top returning offensive weapon, and after a breakout freshman campaign a year ago in which he tallied an SEC-best 963 receiving yards. A lingering groin injury and a novice understanding of the playbook may have actually hindered his performance last season, and Green said he expects bigger things this time around.
That might put him on par with the numbers Bryant posted in his sophomore season. The Oklahoma State receiver caught 87 passes for 1,480 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, finishing as the runner up for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver.
Those credentials are enough evidence that Bryant is a worthy adversary in the preparation to stop Green, Cowboys cornerback Terrance Anderson said.
“I go against, in my opinion, the No. 1 receiver in the country every day, so this is just another step to try and prove that our secondary is getting better and better,” Anderson said.
The debate may rage on between defensive backs as to which player is tougher to defend, but the primary players in the drama aren’t participating.
Green said he has watched highlights of Bryant’s performances on YouTube, but beyond that, he doesn’t know a whole lot about his counterpart in Oklahoma.
Bryant offers some praise of Green’s game, too, but he’s not buying in to the competition.
"I'm really not trying to make a statement,” Bryant said. “It's up to the fans and what they think. I just want to go out there and perform and help our team and hopefully come out with a victory."
As it turns out, picking the winner might be a near impossible task to begin with.
After watching enough game film during the past month to give any defensive back nightmares, Jones said it’s not easy to find many distinctions between the two.
With that in mind, Martinez had Green run routes against Georgia’s defensive backs throughout the past few weeks of practice. That’s a divergence from the Bulldogs’ typical style, but with a number of young corners, including new starter Brandon Boykin, in the mix for playing time Saturday, the experience of going against Georgia’s own version of Bryant was invaluable.
“It helps us tremendously playing against A.J,” Martinez said. “The thing that jumps out at you for both is how outstanding ball skills they have. It just seems like they come down with the ball every time it’s in the air near them – no matter where.”
Martinez said it’s hard to tell how Bryant might line up Saturday. After losing star tight end Brandon Pettigrew to the NFL draft, Martinez thinks the Cowboys might throw a few new wrinkles into the game plan in terms of how they use Bryant.
The key, according to Boykin, is playing physical at the line of scrimmage. Slow Bryant down early, the theory goes, and there’s an opportunity to disrupt the play.
For Oklahoma State, the task of stopping Green won’t be simple either. The sophomore has spent the offseason studying the offense and expects to be moved around to different positions to provide the Cowboys’ defense with a few looks it won’t have seen on tape. That has Cox a little nervous.
“Green, he’s a talented receiver all-around,” Cox said. “Me and the other corners and safeties have got to go in prepared and ready. You look at him and every game they’re sending him deep and he catches some wild passes. We’ve just got to go in and defend him.”
With receivers as good as Green and Bryant, sometimes the specifics don’t matter, Boykin said. It’s just a matter of getting the job done by any means necessary.
“It’s just having that mind-set that you’ve got to stop him,” Boykin said. “There’s really no strategy, you’ve just got to make it happen.”