COLUMBIA, Mo. – Whether he’s expecting to start or to play a backup role, Eric Stokes vows to always keep his head in the game. Little did he know how that would serve him both literally and metaphorically against Missouri on Saturday.
Asked to fill in for an injured Tyler Simmons on Georgia’s punt return team, Stokes assumed his position on the right side of the defense and promptly broke through the line to block the punt.
“It hit me dead in my face,” Stokes relayed afterward, laughing hard at the thought of it. “Right in the face!”
Stokes managed to keep his wits about him long enough to haul in what ended up being a perfect bounce. Without breaking stride, he trotted untouched into the Missouri end zone.
And just like that, Stokes had a touchdown and Georgia had a 20-7 lead.
The amazing part is Stokes had been informed only shortly before that he was going to be in the game in that situation. He’s on second-team punt return behind Simmons. You may remember him as the guy who wasn’t offsides on the block that wasn’t against Alabama in the national title game.
Simmons had been sidelined earlier in the game with an undisclosed injury. So Stokes was given a heads up before going in and getting hit in the head.
“I was good to go,” he said. “I was ready for it.”
Being ready is one the main things coach Kirby Smart loves about Stokes. He has been lauding the redshirt freshman from Covington since the first week of preseason camp.
He was again Saturday, too.
“First off all, he’s a great competitior,” Smart said of Stokes. “I told the team after the game, ‘here’s a guy who got beat out. He never whined, never cried, never pouted, he just worked. And when you work, you get better.
“He’s not even a starter on punt return. He didn’t even get to take reps to do that block. He went in because he paid attention to the guy that was in front of him, executed it for Tyler Simmons perfectly and really played well today. It didn’t surprise me because he practices well. I told you he had a really good camp and it paid off for him today.”
It wasn’t just on punt returns that Stokes came through. He also had to fill in for starter Tyson Campbell at cornerback. Campbell had a 64-yard touchdown return off a fumble recovery in the first quarter. But he suffered a subluxed shoulder a short time later.
Campbell actually was okay after the shoulder injury, but he started to get sick a short time later. Vomiting brought on by dehydration and the pain of the injury eventually sidelined him for the game.
No problem. All Stokes did was come in and record four pass-breakups. He also had one tackle as the Bulldogs held quarterback Drew Lock without touchdown pass for the first time in 13 games. Lock led the SEC with 44 touchdown passes last year.
“I always knew what Stokes could do,” senior cornerback Deandre Baker said. “He just needed a chance. In camp, he got beat out by Tyson Campbell, but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s still a good player. Today he showcased his talent just like I knew he would do. He does it every day in practice, so it wasn’t a surprise he showed it in the game.”
Stokes credited Baker and Georgia’s veteran defensive backs for making sure he was ready for the moment.
“They prepared me for this day,” Stokes said. “They’re constantly on me, 24-7, so I was already prepared. After the first play, literally, everything was just playing ball.”
But Stokes was having to pinch himself a little. He didn’t expect to play such a big role in Saturday’s game, especially after the start Campbell got off to.
“I was ear-to-ear smiling, happy, jumping up and down, laughing, when Tyson scored,” Stokes said. “Tyson’s my dog, ‘til the day I die. We always compete. That’s how I get better and he gets better. As soon as he came to the sideline we were celebrating together.
“But they said he was out. We’re dogs, but it’s next man up here. Luckily, it was my turn and I had to go in and do my business.”