ATHENS — It used to be kind of confusing for Eric Stokes, Jr. He used to be a track guy that played some football. Then he was a football player who ran a little track. Now he’s just a football player, and a pretty good one for the Georgia Bulldogs.
As of this week, the redshirt freshman from Covington became Georgia’s starting cornerback. He came in for a struggling Tyson Campbell last Saturday against Auburn and played so well that he now will get his first career start this Saturday when the No. 5 Bulldogs (9-1, 8-0 SEC) play host to UMass (4-7).
It’s been quite a run for Stokes. Pun intended.
“After my first season (at Georgia), I started off running track,” said Stokes, speaking after the Bulldogs’ practice Tuesday night at the Butts-Mehre football complex. “But then I was like, ‘ah, track is not really for me anymore.’ After that I just sort of slowly faded away from track.”
It’s not like it’s ancient history. That was just last spring. But Stokes found out two things after answering the call of Georgia’s dynamic track coach, Petros Kyprianou, to give it a try: One, those guys that run track full time for the Bulldogs are really, really fast, as the men’s team 2018 NCAA Track & Field national championship will attest. And, two, when Stokes was out there running track, he wasn’t getting better at football.
“I’m out there running with people that run 9.9s, 10.0s,” Stokes said. “People really underestimate those guys. They expect you to go out there and be able to run the same way when you left it. You try to jump in the groove, but there’s still a lot you’ve got to do.”
This past spring, not only did Stokes decide to spend it 100 percent committed to football, but he also enrolled for the mini-semester in May — known as May-mester — and used his extra time then to work football.
The difference was evident by the time the Bulldogs opened preseason camp in August.
“Football-wise, just being here May-mester helped me learn the system and everything, helped me learn more,” said the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Stokes. “Basically it helped me out a lot. I became more comfortable with what I was doing and wasn’t second-guessing myself anymore.”
Back at Eastside High School, Stokes was mostly a track guy who played a little football at the coaches’ behest.
As a junior, he won the Class AAAA championship in the 100 meters in a blistering 10.39 seconds. What’s more, Stokes also won the Class AAAA title in the 200 (21.58 seconds) and ran the anchor leg for the championship-winning 4×100-meter race. The only time Stokes didn’t walk to the tallest podium on the medal stand was after the 4×400 race. They finished sixth.
Not surprisingly, Eastside won the state championship.
So speed, plain and simple, was why Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs recruited Stokes, who was only a 3-star prospect. Since then, he has been a bit of a pet project.
Stokes did not play at all last season. He was redshirted.
This year, Stokes has been on the travel roster for every game and played in all but one. He first burst on the scene against Missouri in Week 4 when starter Tyson Campbell went out with an shoulder injury. Stokes came off the bench to record four tackles, three pass break-ups and block a punt.
With Campbell getting victimized by Auburn this past Saturday, Georgia inserted Stokes into the game again. And he responded again. Stokes’ pass break-up in the end zone on third down prevented a touchdown and forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal in a game the Bulldogs won 27-10.
“You’ve just got to be prepared every moment for everything,” Stokes said of being pressed into duty like that. “You can’t be fearful. You have to have confidence in yourself.”
Stokes definitely has the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
“Stokes has been going with the first group,” said Smart, indicating Stokes will likely start ahead of Campbell Saturday against UMass. “He’s competing, playing well. So is Tyson.”
“Stokes comes to play every week,” said fellow DB Mark Webb. “He never changes. I’ve been seeing that out of Stokes a long time.”
Meanwhile, the competition with Campbell will continue. Unlike Stokes, it’s always been about football for the freshman from Miami. The former 5-star prospect has started every game at the left cornerback position.
But Campbell has been picked on a lot. Playing opposite of senior All-America candidate Deandre Baker, teams invariably are passing the ball on the other side of the field. At times, Campbell has handled that well. Often, he hasn’t
“Tyson’s got a lot to learn,” Smart said after Tuesday’s practice. “When he’s going with the 2s you find out how much he still has to learn because he doesn’t have the safeties that know it as well as the 1s. So the communication is not as good. So we’re finding out that he maybe has more to learn than we thought because the 1 safeties help him a lot more.”
That’s where that time concentrating on football this past spring is benefiting Stokes now. If nothing else, he knows where he’s supposed to be, and he still has the speed to get there.
“He’s just smart. He’s really bright,” Smart said of Stokes. “He understands leverage, he understands coverages. You tell him something once and he goes out to practice and does it. A lot of the guys need reps and reps; Stokes gets it in the meetings. He’s very bright. He’s very diligent.”
Stokes is bright enough to know that, as an SEC cornerback, you’re only as good as your latest busted coverage. Get beat deep in a game and that might be the last rep you get.
So the competition at left cornerback will continue. But that’s all part of being a football player, and it won’t affect how he and Campbell get along.
“We’re going through the same thing, day in and day out,” Stokes said. “Me and Tyson, we both help each other. I know he’s got my back just like I have his back. We’re always talking about this and that, so we can help each other grow.”
In the meantime, it’s not like Stokes is getting a break by starting against UMass. Yes, the Bulldogs are 40-plus-point favorites. But the Minutemen throw the ball all over the yard and feature the nation’s leading receiver in Andy Isabella. The 5-10 wideout has caught 87 passes for 1,479 yards and 11 TDs.
Odds are strong that Isabella and the Minutemen will be coming after Stokes.
“He’s a real big threat, so we know his capability,” Stokes said. “He’s fast. He can give you moves and he’s really good with his routes. We’ve got to watch out for him. … I’ve just got to go out there and do my job.”