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Lauren Tolbert / UGA Sports
Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes (27) breaks up a pass intended for receiver J.J. Holloman in the first half of Saturday's G-Day at Sanford Stadium.

Georgia’s Eric Stokes experiences the good and bad of playing cornerback during G-Day

Chip Towers

ATHENS — Eric Stokes made the play of the game, was probably the defensive player of the game and drew strong praise from his head coach not just because of what he did in the G-Day Game, but what he did all spring with the Bulldogs. Yet all the junior cornerback could think about Saturday as he got ready to leave Sanford Stadium was the one that got away.

Well, that and what he was having for dinner. That’d be Beanie Weanies as he suited up with the Black Team that lost 22-17. The winners from the Red Team were to dine on steak and lobster Saturday night.

“That’s going to be very tough, knowing that we had the lead most of the game and they came back in the end,” Stokes said of his Saturday night fare. “But I blame that all on me because I was the one that gave up the touchdown that put them up. So that’s on me. I should never allow those things.”

Stokes got beat on what was indeed the decisive play of the game. Jeremiah “J.J.” Holloman, a lifelong friend and fellow Newton County resident, got open on a post route, hauled in the pass from backup quarterback Stetson Bennett and turned it into a 43-yard touchdown that gave the Red Team a 19-17 lead with 8:09 to play.

Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes wrestles away the ball from wideout J.J. Holloman and turned it into a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown on the third play of Saturday’s G-Day Game. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Such is the life of a cornerback. The touchdown allowed ruined what otherwise had been an incredibly productive day for Stokes. In fact, it could not have gotten off to a better start.

The primary objective for the defense this spring and for the 2019 season is to create “havoc plays.” Interceptions, pass-breakups, sacks, tackles for loss and defensive touchdowns are something coach Kirby Smart believes the Bulldogs have not produced enough of the last couple of seasons. So there’s been a very pointed initiative to show marked improvement in that regard this season.

“That’s all we wanted: havoc, havoc, havoc,” Stokes said. “Havoc can lead to a lot of things. We wanted to create some havoc and keep the score down. We talked about that all week and that’s exactly what we did.”

Havoc is exactly what Stokes created right out of the chute on Saturday. On the day’s third play from scrimmage, with the Jake Fromm-led Red Team facing third-and-three from the 37, Stokes jumped Holloman’s slant route, snatched the ball at the same time Holloman did, wrestled it away, then returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.

Two minutes into the game, Stokes’ Black Team led 7-0.

“J.J. slipped and that enabled me to look at the quarterback,” Stokes said. “I really shouldn’t, but since he slipped, I felt like I could take a little gamble. Luckily the gamble paid off. So I was just glad I was the one who ended up with the ball.”

Predictably, Stokes was absolutely mobbed by the Black Team coaches and players as he came to the sideline.

“They absolutely loved it,” Stokes said. “A lot of hands on my helmet. It was amazing. I’m thinking, ‘this is a great way to start.’ But then a couple of plays humbled me real quick.”

Holloman would have the last laugh with the late TD.

“I really don’t know what happened,” Stokes said of the decisive play. “I’ve got to go back and look at film because that’s the play that’s eating me alive right now.”

Holloman was more than happy to fill in the blanks for his buddy.

“That was a double move, so it was just a win situation for me,” Holloman said with a grin. “I got him on a good move and I was open coming across the middle and Stetson saw me. He let the ball go and I made the play.”

Nevertheless, Smart had nothing but praise for Stokes. Getting beat down the middle is the cost sometimes of being playing corner. It should never happen against a true opponent, but it doesn’t erase all the strides Smart has seen Stokes make.

“He certainly made a good play to start us off today,” Smart said. “I thought that was a good fight for the ball and he scored with it when he got it. He’s a kid that has come a long way from a guy that wasn’t really a DB coming out of high school to an athlete that is very conscientious about doing things the right way. When you teach Stokes something, he listens and applies it. When you combine that ability with talent, you’ve got a pretty good player.”

Stokes knows he good. He just wants to be great and he knows what that looks like. He’s following Deandre Baker at corner and Baker didn’t allow a TD the last two seasons. That’s not including G-Day, of course.

“I remember all the bad plays. I barely remember the good plays,” Stokes said. “That’s more of what I’m looking at. I know I gave up a third-and-four, a third-and-five, where we could’ve been off the field. And then, of course, I gave up a touchdown. So that’s more how I’m looking at it. I’m thinking of all of the bad instead of all the good.”

Fortunately, for him, there were more of the latter.