WATCH: G-Day, spring ball show Ben Cleveland is back to full strength for the Bulldogs
ATHENS — That Ben Cleveland started the G-Day Game at right guard and played most of the day with the No. 1 offense was no small thing. Then again, pretty much nothing about Cleveland is small.
The 6-foot-6, 335-pound redshirt junior from Toccoa got the starting nod with the Red Team over a host of other elite linemen vying for playing time in 2019. And while the competition is far from over, that’s saying a lot considering where Cleveland was at the end of last season.
Cleveland played a total of three plays at right guard the final 10 games of last season. That’s because he broke his left leg in Game 4 against Missouri. He missed the next five games while recovering from surgery to repair the fibula fracture. Cleveland played in four of the last five games, but almost exclusively on punt and place-kicking units.
“Because all I had to do was stand up and hold my ground,” Cleveland quipped.
But while Cleveland’s claim to fame remains his gargantuan size and brute strength, he’s also one of the Bulldogs’ fastest linemen. When healthy, he routinely registered 18-19 miles per hour on UGA’s GPS tracking system.
That quickness is back now after having a three weeks of bowl preparation and four months of off-season strength and conditioning to rehab.
“I’m not limping around anymore,” Cleveland said.
Who might start at right guard was one of the most intriguing questions for the Bulldogs heading into spring practice and will remain so between now and the Aug. 31 opener at Vanderbilt. That’s because line coach Sam Pittman has so many enticing options.
With Cleveland sidelined last season, 5-star freshman Cade Mays started the next five games and played extremely well. When Mays was injured in the Auburn game, the Bulldogs turned to freshman Trey Hill, who started the last four contests and also played well. Jamaree Salyer, another 5-star freshman, also was getting snaps at right guard.
Hill has since taken over at center. But Salyer and Mayes competed daily with Cleveland at right guard as well as right tackle during spring camp.
For the purpose of G-Day, Cleveland and Isaiah Wilson got the nod at right guard and tackle, Hill started at center and Solomon Kindley and Andrew Thomas went first at left guard and tackle, respectively, for the No. 1 offense. But then Pittman proceeded to move players all over the place during the scrimmage, won 22-17 by Cleveland’s Red Team.
“We can sit here and roll guys in and out all day and it’s not going to make a difference,” Cleveland said. “You know, I think that’s something a lot of O-line coaches wish they could have. Hats off to Coach Pittman because obviously he’s the one recruiting them and making that happen.”
It has been a long hard road for Cleveland just to reach this point. A consensus 4-star prospect with some 5-star mentions coming out of Stephens County High, Cleveland first had to deal with the ouster of head coach Mark Richt, then the disappointment of having to redshirt his first season.
Cleveland broke through in 2017, however. He took over for Kindley at right guard midway through the Auburn game in what ended up as Georgia’s only regular-season loss. Cleveland then finished out the year with five consecutive starts.
Cleveland picked up where he left off in 2018 and opened the season as one of the Bulldogs’ most impressive and reliable linemen. Then came the roll-up injury in a road win at Missouri and Cleveland has been trying to make his way back into the lineup ever since.
“I wouldn’t call it an accomplishment,” he said of earning the start this past Saturday. “Right now, nothing’s set in stone. You know, we continue to work every day. That’s just where we happened to land at today.”
For sure, nothing is settled as yet. But the fact that Cleveland emerged with the first unit in spring practice is a signifcant development regardless of how it shakes out from here.
“He had a good spring,” coach Kirby Smart said. “I think if you ask Ben, he has grown. He’s gotten more comfortable with the bullets flying. Everybody thinks, ‘Well, you snap your fingers and you’re right back to being Ben Cleveland of old.’ But he missed a lot of time where he had not (been playing regularly), not dealing with checks and calls. He’s back in the action, and he certainly looks 100 percent.”
Cleveland acknowledged that. He set a power-clean record during off-season training and is again topping out on his GPS numbers. But he knows a whole summer of work and another 28 practices during preseason camp will determine the starting lineup for the season opener at Vanderbilt.
Daily competition with the likes of Mayes, Salyer and Justin Shaffer will keep Cleveland sharp between now and then.
“(Competition) is big time for guys not getting comfortable with where they’re at,” Cleveland said. “You’re always having people come up on you. So I think that keeps everybody level-headed and makes them keep working.”