ATHENS – The final word was given to Ben Cleveland on Friday, before Georgia went through its final walk-through of the week. At long last, he was going to start his first college game.
“I was a little bit nervous, I’m not going to lie,” Cleveland said. “But I knew in the end it was all going to come down to my effort and doing my assignments.”
Cleveland arrived at Georgia last year as a highly touted and well-known prospect. He came with a nickname, Big Ben, all too easy to bestow on a 6-foot-6, 335-pound player. Or some called him Big Country, from Toccoa in northeast Georgia.
But even as Georgia struggled mightily to block in 2016, Cleveland wasn’t an option. He redshirted, which he said in hindsight was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
When he was in high school, Cleveland could dominate anyone physically. He couldn’t do that every game at the SEC level, which he discovered in practice going against Georgia’s front seven.
“It gave me just that one year to develop and practice my craft,” Cleveland said. “So I have zero complaints with it.”
A season later, Cleveland was a more finely tuned and versatile player, shuttling between tackle and guard. He wasn’t needed most of this season, as Georgia appeared to settle its offensive line problem, but then came the debacle at Auburn.
Cleveland started at right guard over Solomon Kindley, who had started seven games there this season. The two ended up alternating, with Kindley seeing action close to half the game.
“We had a little rotation going on that [offensive line] coach [Sam] Pittman wanted to put in place,” Cleveland said. “Just to make sure everybody stayed fresh and played as hard as we could.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart maintained that Cleveland starting wasn’t so much about the struggles at Auburn as it was practice competition. Cleveland was getting work with the first team before the Auburn game, too, according to Smart.
“Y’all just didn’t write about it,” Smart said to reporters. “It wasn’t a big deal to us. It wasn’t like we said, ‘Oh, we couldn’t run the ball, we’ve got to make a change.’ We just went with who practiced best.”
There were almost other changes spurred by practice, Smart added: Left guard Kendall Baker was almost beat out by senior Dyshon Sims.
“And next week Ben might almost beat out [right tackle] Andrew Thomas because he backs him up,” Smart said. “So we’ve got great competition at that position, and I think Solomon’s going to respond the right way. He went in and played well and will continue to improve.”
Whatever the thinking, the results were better. While the competition has to be considered — Auburn has one of the best defensive fronts in the SEC — Georgia only gave up 1 sack to Kentucky, compared with 4 against Auburn, and averaged 8.7 yards per rush, nearly four times better than the week before.
As for Cleveland, he appeared to have a solid starting debut, playing during some of those second-half drives when Georgia tailbacks ran away with the game. Nick Chubb, who got many of his 155 yards running behind Cleveland, was asked about the big redshirt freshman.
“He practices hard. He’s a big guy. Big and physical and strong,” Chubb said. “He can push anyone up front. That’s kind of why he got a start; he’s big and physical and strong.”