ATHENS, Ga. — By the time you read this, Eric Stokes will already be focused on SEC foe Tennessee. That’s the second-ranked Georgia Bulldogs’ Saturday opponent.
But as of Thursday, the 6-foot-2 sophomore from Eastside High in, as he affectionately calls it, “little ol’ Covington,” was still geeked about his breakout performance in last Saturday’s 43-29 road win over the Missouri Tigers.
In that game, Stokes had clearly his most memorable play as a Dawg, when he came flying off the edge to block a Missouri punt, then scoop the ball and score his first collegiate touchdown.
As of Thursday when he chatted about it, he was still struggling to find words to articulate the feelings that play brought him.
“I mean, words can’t even describe it,” Stokes said. “Still to this day, I mean right now, I can’t believe it. It still hasn’t hit me, but it was a tremendous moment. One I’ll never forget.”
Stokes did a better job of describing the special teams play call that sprung him for the defensive score.
“We had a play called all week, and all week we were working on this certain look that we thought (Missouri) would give us,” Stokes said. “But I had run it only once as a backup. Still, I had been paying attention and watching Tyler (Simmons) so I could make sure I knew what to do and that I’d line up in the right spot. Luckily my name was called, and the play opened up way better than it did in practice.”
Because of that, Stokes’ world class speed got him to the ball quicker than he expected. And it takes Stokes’ high school coach, Troy Hoff — who was watching the game from home — to detail what happened next.
“Nobody blocked him, and the kid is so fast, he actually blocked the punt with his face,” Hoff said with a chuckle. Took it off the face mask.”
Stokes corroborated the account.
“I went for it with my hand and missed it and it hit my face,” he said.
And that’s when instincts took over.
“I saw the ball, and then it was just scoop and score,” Stokes said. “Just like back in high school.”
After the play, Stokes could be seen on the sidelines donning the spiked shoulder pads given to a player after they make a game-changing defensive play, such as forcing a turnover or scoring on a play much like Stokes performed in Columbia. With those pads came the smacks to his helmet from coaches and teammates.
After the game came the deluge of messages from folks back in Covington, including coaches and old Eastside friends and teammates, congratulating him on his performance.
“I talked with coach Hoff and coach (Jay) Cawthon and even coach Mack, and they all just said they knew it would finally come,” Stokes said. “They knew I’d finally get my opportunity. And they were right. I finally got it and showed what they knew I could do.”
Hoff said as much as he assessed the attributes that have made Stokes rise from occasional special teams contributor to a meaningful part of the Bulldogs’ secondary.
“First of all, he’s just a great kid,” Hoff said. “People like him because he’s a good person and because of how hard he works. He’s bought into what coach (Kirby) Smart and coach (Mel) Tucker is saying to him. He saw that picture, and how things could develop for him as a student athlete at Georgia, and he’s bought into it.
"(The punt block) is the play that gets the attention, but the play before that on third down, he had a big pass breakup working against a quality offense and one of the best QBs in the country. I think it just shows his confidence level and that he's rounding into a good cornerback for them."
Hoff said the way Stokes responded to initially not winning a starting job during the offseason is a lesson he hopes his current players are watching and learning from.
“When he was a redshirt, he went to work,” Hoff said. “He didn’t look at it as a slight. He worked hard in the classroom too, and that put him in a good position during the spring. He didn’t win the job, but he kept playing his snaps and he stayed ready. I think that’s a lesson to our guys who played with Eric that if you stay committed to the process, don’t get down about things and just keep working, good things can happen.”
For Stokes, a former Ficquett and Cousins Middle student, the limelight gave him yet another opportunity to brag about his stomping grounds.
“It’s amazing because me and JJ (Holloman) always talk about Covington,” Stokes said. “In the locker room, wherever. We’re always talking about how the C-O-V is nothing to play with. I love putting on for Covington. The city of Covington is what made me what I am. I’ve been here since I was born. There’s no other place I know. I don’t hide it. Any moment I can take to brag about where I’m from, I take it.”
It’s the reason why he doesn’t hesitate to share what he thinks anyone from his hometown who aspires to walk in his footsteps should know.
“It’s easy, really,” he said. “Rule number one, it’s your grades. You’ve gotta take care of things in the classroom. And the coaches at Eastside actually really helped me grades wise. If not for them, I’d never get here. But second, just keep believing in yourself when nobody else does. As a freshman and sophomore at Eastside, I didn’t get any looks at all. But I didn’t let that stop me. But then, you just have to focus on yourself. Don’t compare because someone else is getting their time. Just be patient and keep working and wait until your time.
“Everybody has their own moment. Every person will eventually have their time.”