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Bulldogs in the Draft: Eric Stokes

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Florida vs Georgia Photo by Piper Hansen/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

The NFL Draft kicks off this Thursday and there are a host of former Georgia Bulldogs looking to hear their names called.

We’re discussing each of them over the coming days, looking back at their college careers, scouting their NFL potential, and speculating a little about where they might wind up. Next on the list is one of a trio of Bulldog defensive backs who chose to forfeit their final year of eligibility for the NFL Draft, Eric Stokes.

Stokes, DJ Daniel and Tyson Campbell will all have their names called at some point during the NFL Draft, but Stokes appears to be higher on boards around the league than his former Bulldog teammates. Nobody would’ve predicted that when these three were high-school prospects coming into Athens.

Campbell was a five-star recruit and the #2 ranked DB in the nation in the class of 2018. Daniel was the #2 ranked JUCO DB in the country and a heavily sought after four-star recruit in the class of 2019 who spent a year at Georgia Military College after failing to qualify out of high-school. Unlike his contemporaries, Eric Stokes took the hard road to draft day.

Stokes was a 3-star defensive back out of Covington, a small town of about 13,000 residents 40 minutes east of Atlanta. He was a three-star prospect who wasn’t always a take for UGA. In fact, Stokes was more known for his track skills as a high-schooler.

He won the Class AAAA championship in the 100 meters in a blazing 10.39 seconds as a Junior. Stokes also won the Class AAAA title in the 200 (21.58 seconds) and ran the anchor leg for Eastside High’s championship-winning 4×100-meter relay team. It was at that meet where then UGA defensive coordinator Mel Tucker saw a tall skinny kid with speed and texted a staffer to figure out who Stokes was.

Stokes was essentially a developmental prospect who Kirby Smart recruited for his speed. It’s likely that Stokes never would have made it to Athens if Georgia had been able to land Jamyest Williams, a then 4-star who was a consensus Top 100 overall player in the class of 2017. Williams picked South Carolina on National Signing Day, and Georgia took Eric Stokes instead. Four years later, Williams is now at Georgia State after an up and down career in Columbia. An afterthought when he committed, Stokes turned into one of the best player’s on a Georgia roster filled with blue-chip recruits.

As a Georgia fan, it felt like Stokes came out of nowhere in the 2018 season. Campbell was the true freshman five-star Mr. Everything who started as opposite of that year’s Thorpe Award winner, Deandre Baker. Against Missouri in that year’s fourth game Campbell got hurt. Stokes was inserted into the game in his place, and a lot of Georgia fans had never heard of him until that moment. Four tackles, three pass breakups, and a blocked punt later, Stokes was on his way to becoming a household name.

Campbell got picked on a lot in 2018. Against Auburn in the season’s ninth game he was struggling, and the coaches put Stokes into the game. He broke up a third-down pass in the end-zone and Georgia shut Auburn down the rest of the way, winning 27-10. Stokes started the rest of the games that year, and a few weeks later he was flying all over the field and breaking up passes from Tua Tagovailoa as Georgia shocked the country by taking a 14-point lead on undefeated Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

Whichever NFL team takes Stokes is going to get a relentless competitor and hard worker. Stokes probably should have been the starter earlier in that 2018 season, but Campbell’s five-star pedigree and ample ability bought him a lot of leeway as a true freshman. Stokes never got down. He kept competing in practice, and made the most of every rep. On gamedays he stayed ready despite not knowing when he would see the field. Every time he got an opportunity he took advantage of it.

You don’t go from a 160 pound three-star prospect to a 185 pound All-SEC corner without being coachable and working hard in the weight room. Stokes checks all of the boxes when it comes to intangibles.

We mentioned that Stokes was a high-school track star, but unlike a lot of track guys, he has speed that translates to the football field. His 4.25 forty time caused a lot of buzz at Georgia’s Pro Day, but he moves extremely well laterally as well.

Stokes is as good a defensive-back in phase as Georgia has had in at least a decade. He can stick to the hip of any wide-receiver. Some evaluators have knocked his ball skills, which is ironic because he has better ball skills than any of the defensive backs Georgia had on their roster this year. PFF caused some waves recently when they left Stokes off of their list of this draft’s top ten corners and ranked Tyson Campbell #8. I have watched every snap that these guys have taken the last three years.

Campbell will make a fine corner, but Stokes is better at defending the ball when it gets to the receiver. A lot of college corners struggle to get their heads around and play the ball, but Stokes doesn’t. The game seems slow to him and he anticipates the ball’s arrival by reading the movement of the receiver he’s covering.

There might not be a more disagreed on player in this draft than Eric Stokes. He will go anywhere from late in the first round to the third day of the draft depending who you ask. His speed has never been in doubt, and if Al Davis was still among us I’d run to bet on him going to the Raiders in the first. The controversy around Stokes seems to lie in whether or not he has good hands. He didn’t record an interception in 2018 or 2019, but he had four in nine games in 2020. Two of those were taken back for six.

The rise in interceptions in 2020 after critics questioned his hands last offseason is pretty much the Stokes story in a nutshell. He’s gotten better every year, and when he’s given feedback on how to strengthen his game he digests it and improves.

He has elite instincts and is great at anticipating throws. Stokes played running back in high-school before making the switch to defense. Like a lot of guys who started their careers on offense, he seems to have benefited from that experience. He understands route concepts and knows how to read a quarterback’s eyes. In the rare situation that he does find himself beat by a step he often undercuts the route to the spot where the ball should be delivered, using his speed and smarts to get himself back into position.

At 6’1” and 185 pounds he doesn’t get pushed around often, and has put on a lot of good weight over his college career without losing the elite speed he came to Georgia with. With long arms for his size, he plays a bit bigger than his height when in coverage.

His tackling ability is under discussed in my opinion, and it’s something that I think is undervalued by decision makers when evaluating defensive backs for the modern game. The ball is thrown a lot in the college and pro game today, and good tackling after the catch can be the difference between a short gain and an explosive. At 185, Stokes hits more like a safety than your average DB, and has shown good abilities in run support when given the opportunity.

If he gets the chance he will stick somebody. Just ask Brian Mauer.

If there’s one thing about Stokes game that could be considered a potential weakness it might be his tendency to get grabby at the top of routes. Looking at his highlight tape, there are a couple of plays where he might get called for interference on a different day.

One thing seems certain. No matter what round his name is called in, Stokes is going to be the same guy. Former Georgia DC Mel Tucker gushed from his office in Colorado when talking about Stokes to Seth Emerson of The Athletic last year.

“The kid is going to be where he needs to be every time,” Tucker said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s one of those guys who you only have to tell him one time, and he’s got it. And he doesn’t say anything, he just sits there! He absorbs it.”

Tucker gave Stokes the nickname “Dirty Red” for his hard-nosed, get better attitude as a redshirt freshman. Just by having him in the building, a good thing is going to happen for whatever franchise eventually picks Stokes. Like all who have watched his development, Tucker has seen Stokes get better every season. “He has the tools. He has a passion for the game. He’s very coachable. He’s a willing tackler. And he competes, and he’s a very unselfish guy. The team is important to him. He’s one of those guys who’s going to do anything he can for the team. Those type of guys, usually good things happen for them.”

Georgia fans will certainly miss Stokes next year. His story and the chip he played with made him a throwback to the Junkyard Dawgs era of Georgia defenses. He was slept on out of high-school and it feels like many are sleeping on him now. I won’t be surprised if he goes in the early-2nd round, but I also won’t be shocked if he has to wait until Saturday afternoon. Either way, somebody is getting a hell of a corner.