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Cornerback Tyson Campbell started 11 games for the Bulldogs last season but ended up losing his job to fellow freshman Eric Stokes. The two will open this spring as Georgia's starting cornerbacks.

SPRING PREVIEW: Georgia cornerbacks aim to pick up where Deandre Baker left off

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL ANALYSIS

Part XIV: The Cornerbacks

This is Part 14 in a series breaking down and analyzing each position group for the Georgia Bulldogs in advance of spring football practice, which is scheduled to begin on March 19.

ATHENS — All-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker dominated the statistics among Georgia’s cornerbacks last year (and the year before for that matter), as one might suspect. The most amazing stat among them was not allowing a touchdown pass for the entire season.

But as incredible as Baker’s season was, position mates Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes did finish ahead of Baker in one important statistical category — touchdowns scored. They had one apiece.

Baker, quite infamously, finished with zero. At least they were able to get the ball across the goal line, right?!

Teasing aside, that stat does bode well for the Bulldogs in 2019. It means that Georgia has at least a couple of experienced play-makers coming back at corner.

Georgia football-Eric Stokes-Spring Preview on Georgia cornerbacks
Georgia and coach Kirby Smart really liked what it got out of Eric Stokes as a redshirt freshman last season, including this blocked-punt TD against Missouri (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Campbell and Stokes are the two players that logged the most playing time after Baker last season. Accordingly, each will figure heavily into the competition for playing time at corner again this year. One of them almost certainly will succeed Baker at his right cornerback position.

Both Stokes and Campbell are fascinating studies. Each of them were major contributors as freshmen on Georgia’s defense last year, Campbell as a true freshman and Stokes as a redshirt. And their stories are uniquely intertwined.

Campbell came in as the heralded 5-star signee and lived up to the billing right away as a first-game starter and 11 starts overall. But right about the time they were both recording their touchdowns – each scored in Game 4 versus Missouri — Stokes served notice that he was going to be a factor in the secondary as well. And as the season played out, Stokes actually ended overtaking Campbell at left cornerback. Stokes started three of the last four games at that spot.

The good news is the two players remain good friends and both are back for the Bulldogs. As spring practice opens up next Tuesday, each will be first on the field with the cornerbacks. Campbell is the favorite to succeed Baker at right corner, while Stokes is expected to pick up where he left off at left. That’s the way the 2018 season ended after Baker made his controversial decision to skip the Sugar Bowl.

Beyond that, however, there are no guarantees. Georgia has a number of other players who will be competing for those positions. As usual, coach Kirby Smart has recruited strongly to ensure that.

In addition to a number of returnees who will figure into the competition, the Bulldogs added D.J. Daniel, the No. 2-ranked junior college corner in the country. The 6-1, 185-pound product of Griffin comes from down the road at Georgia Military College and entered UGA as an early enrollee.

So did Tyrique Stevenson, the latest blue-chip defensive back to make his way to Athens from Miami. Baker was, of course, from Miami, as is sophomore Divaad Wilson, another defensive back who’s going to figure into the competition. Stevenson and Wilson are longtime friends, attending high school 25 miles from each other on the South Florida coast. Also expected to figure into the equation is Mark Webb, who along with fellow rising junior William Poole have logged the only other starts among the returning cornerbacks. So the competition for playing time will be fast and furious.

But all eyes will be on Campbell and Stokes this spring, just as they were in that Missouri game last fall. Just six minutes into the contest, on the Tigers’ first possession, Campbell scooped up a fumble and returned it 64 yards for a touchdown. But he was injured on the play and did not return.

Stokes entered the picture, and not only did he gain attention with a blocked punt touchdown late in the second quarter, he contributed significantly to the Bulldogs’ amazing feat of holding Missouri and quarterback Drew Locke without a a touchdown pass. He had three pass break-ups and four tackles in relief of Campbell. Understandably, Stokes would become a regular part of the rotation from then on.

Stokes finished the season with 8 pass break-ups, second only to the esteemed Baker’s 10. He also had an interception and 27-yard return. Campbell actually led all corners with 45 tackles. The fearless Baker logged 40 stops. And, of course, no TDs.

Linebacker Juwan Taylor got the one ear-marked for Baker. He alertly scooped up the ball at the 1 when Baker inadvertently dropped it before he crossed the goal-line plane in what was went down as a 55-yard interception return.

No matter. Baker’s season turned out all right. And so did the ones for Campbell and Stokes. With them on opposite corners to start the spring, Georgia’s all-star legacy at cornerback appears safe. But there is at least a half-dozen other candidates who hope to play their way into the story.

Let’s break down the corners:

THE CORNERBACKS

  • Returning starters: Tyson Campbell, 6-2, 185, Sophomore.
  • Others returning: Eric Stokes, 6-1, 185, R.So.; Mark Webb, 6-1, 200, So; Divaad Wilson; 6-0, 195, So.; Ameer Speed, 6-3, 211, Jr.; Christopher Smith, 5-11, 180, So.; William Poole, 6-0, 190, Jr.; Latavious Brini, 6-2, 196, RSo.;
  • Early enrollees: D.J. Daniel, 6-1, 185, Jr.; Tyrique Stevenson, 6-1, 200, Fr.; Lewis Cine, 6-1, 185, Fr.
  • On the way: Unknown.
  • Analysis: One of the most amazing proficiencies the Bulldogs displayed as a defense last year was limiting explosive plays. They went into the SEC Championship Game against Alabama ranked No. 2 in the nation in that obscure stat, which takes into account plays of 20 or more yards. That had a lot to do with Baker being at one cornerback position but, perhaps more than any area, secondary success is a group effort. The Bulldogs have recruitment of corners — and defensive backs in general — shows that Smart is serious continuing that success. But beyond Stokes and Campbell, this remains a young and largely unproven bunch. The upperclassmen that were originally designated to be successors haven’t come through so far. Georgia has incurred some attrition at this position — redshirt freshman Tray Bishop remains in the transfer portal and in legal purgatory — and third-year corners Poole and Speed and second-year guys like Brini and Smith have limited experience and total of 17 career tackles between them. So the Bulldogs are long on talent and potential but short on in-game experience.
  • Bottom line: Campbell and Stokes give Georgia a strong starting-off point at cornerback. The one thing they have above all else is speed. Those two are among the fastest players on the team. So if they do end up getting beat out as starters, it will mean the players that took over are really good. The Bulldogs also should benefit this season from being better in the front seven. Between a new crop of outside linebackers and a development in the defensive line, Georgia is expected to generate more pressure on the passer. That should help with what was a relatively low number of interceptions last year with eight. All that taken into account, the Bulldogs at the top of the SEC in passing and total defense in 2019.

UP NEXT: Georgia brings back a wealth of experience at safety, but that doesn’t mean the lineup remains status quo.

SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW