There may be no greater disservice to incoming college football players than recruiting rankings. They skew the perceptions of fans, convince some players they've "made it" before they set foot on campus, convince others that they are not that great, and just generally color our perceptions in ways that aren't at all realistic.
Oh, I'm not saying there's no place for rankings. They are fun, and the evidence indicates that taken as a whole they do shed light on the likelihood of teams winning football games. But every year there are players who we would look at much differently were it not for the number of little stars next to their names when they were 16 years old.
UGA lineman Ben Cleveland is just such a player. Cleveland was marked as potentially the top player in the state of Georgia before he had even played his junior season of high school football. A quote attributed to William "Refrigerator" Perry applies with equal force to "Big Ben": he "was big even when he was little." I think if you asked Bulldog fans, even fans who closely follow recruiting, many of them could not tell you precisely where Cleveland ended in the 247Sports final Georgia rankings on Signing Day 2016. The truth is he was not even ranked as one of the top 10 players in Georgia.
This was due mostly to some camp performances and matchups with excellent players during his senior season at Stephens County which demonstrated that Cleveland still had a long way to go in some parts of his game. Make no mistake, the potential was obviously there. But savvy observers recognized that Cleveland still had things to improve on. He came to Athens needing to improve his footwork, upper body strength, and pass blocking technique among other things to become a truly elite offensive tackle.
That takes time. Like, more than a couple of months.So Big Ben labored through a redshirt season in 2016. While he was laboring privately, the Bulldog offensive line was laboring publicly on a weekly basis, struggling to open holes to allow a stable of talent tailbacks to ever get out of the starting blocks. Now, a year later, both Cleveland specifically and the offensive line unit generally remain unproven. If Cleveland takes a big step forward it could be a huge help to the OL as a group.
The loss of Greg Pyke, Brandon Kublanow, and Tyler Catalina meant that several players up front had to move around. Lamont Galliard slid over to center from his starting guard spot. Isaiah Wynn is entrenched at left tackle. But the right tackle spot has remained in a constant state of flux throughout fall camp. Senior Dyshon Sims has gotten a look there. Even true freshman Andrew Thomas has run with the first unit as recently as last week. Kendall Baker could still get a shot.
All that being said, I would be surprised if Cleveland isn't in the mix, and if he doesn't at least come off the bench for significant snaps. The 6'6, 340 pound mountain man has now trained at guard and tackle in Sam Pittman's scheme. He's noticeably in better shape now than when he reported to Athens.
And he's only a redshirt freshman. See the pernicious thing about recruiting rankings is that they make you forget that elite college football players are only very rarely born. They are more often forged in the crucible of weight rooms and film rooms far from the bright lights. Ben Cleveland has the tools to emerge from the dim corners of fans' memories to the top of the depth chart, and could stay there for quite a while. Until later...