ATHENS — The changing of the guard on Georgia’s offense became official on Tuesday. With Matthew Stafford watching in street clothes, Joe Cox was the No. 1 quarterback as the Bulldogs opened spring practice.
Stafford and Knowshon Moreno could be the top quarterback and tailback, respectively, selected in next month’s NFL draft. That’s a major bragging point for any college coach, but before Mark Richt can enjoy the draft, he must make sure the Georgia offense is ready to move on without the stars.
Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have proclaimed Cox, a fifth-year senior, as the heavy favorite to take over at quarterback.
Bobo even predicted Cox may complete a higher percentage of passes than Stafford.
"Matthew obviously has a bigger arm but I think, I hope, off of production in practice and stuff like that (Cox’s) strength might be he might be more accurate and complete more passes," Bobo said.
"He may not have the big plays downfield. I think he’s capable of doing that but I think his strength might be that he completes a higher percentage."
Cox has had few opportunities to demonstrate his accuracy while spending most of the last three seasons playing behind Stafford.
Cox appeared in only three games last season while completing 11 of 15 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
Finally, it’s Cox’s turn.
"I was hoping my day would come and finally it’s here and it’s a great feeling," Cox said. "I think everybody is looking forward to what we have going on."
Stafford, Moreno and other Georgia players in the NFL draft will work out for scouts at Georgia on Thursday. Stafford and 2008 senior linebacker Dannell Ellerbe watched Tuesday’s practice.
Richt and Bobo say they have been impressed by Cox’s leadership even as a backup. Cox, who calls himself a "rah-rah guy," has promised to bring more leadership as the new leader of the offense.
It would be a major surprise if Cox doesn’t hold the starting job into the 2009 season.
"Joe has never had a problem stepping into any huddle at any time," Richt said Tuesday. "I don’t think it’s very unnatural at all for him just to step in and be the guy in control."
The bigger drama at quarterback may be the competition between sophomore Logan Gray and true freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger to win the backup job.
Gray played on special teams last season, which cost him practice time with other quarterbacks.
Murray, from Tampa, Fla., and Mettenberger, from Oconee County High School near Athens, enrolled early and are participating in spring practice.
"I’m not going to make any rash decisions in the spring," Bobo said. "I’d like to redshirt both of them but having said that, I don’t know. A lot depends on how Logan progresses and what we think of him at the quarterback position and do we feel we have enough depth.
"If one of them is ready to play and we feel he can help us as a backup or possibly play some, we’ll play him."
Caleb King and Richard Samuel, who played behind Moreno in 2008, are the top candidates to start at tailback, but only King was healthy for the start of spring drills.
Samuel is out with a wrist injury. Redshirt freshman Dontavius Jackson is limited with a knee injury, leaving King and Carlton Thomas as the only healthy scholarship tailbacks on Tuesday. King joined Cox on the first-team offense.
"I’m sorry (Samuel) is hurt but it’s a good opportunity because I’m getting more reps," King said.
King said he feels stronger and quicker at 210 pounds after playing at about 218 pounds last season, when he was second on the team with 247 yards rushing.
"Caleb has a great chance to show he knows what he’s doing," Richt said. "It’s not like everybody is out there competing, but Caleb is taking advantage of this chance, I think."
Notes: Former Georgia offensive tackle George Foster of the Detroit Lions watched the start of practice while standing with Richt. ... Moreno was also at the football facility on Tuesday but was not on the practice field for the portion of practice open to reporters. ... More than 20 players wore green non-contact jerseys, an unusually high number for the first practice, according to Richt, who said he hoped some would return before the April 11 G-Day spring game. ... Georgia’s first practice in pads will be Saturday and its first scrimmage is set for next week, according to Richt. ... Richt said his son Jon, a quarterback who announced last week he plans to transfer from Clemson, plans to move to a smaller school. Richt said his son’s first thoughts were to pick a school in Georgia but he said Jon is "still listening to some things." Jon Richt did not play last year as a true freshman.