ATHENS, Ga. — JJ Holloman had a little revenge on his mind. And it ultimately made him out to be a bit of a prophet.
You couldn’t blame the Georgia wide receiver for catching a case of the get-backs though, especially if you saw what happened during the first drive Saturday’s G-Day spring football scrimmage.
Holloman, a Covington native and Newton High graduate, was squared off against Eric Stokes who also hails from Covington and calls Eastside his alma mater. During that first drive, with not even three minutes off the clock, Stokes stepped in front of Holloman and wrestled away a Jake Fromm pass intended for the 6-foot-3 sophomore.
Then Stokes turned on the track speed that made him famous at Eastside and darted 39 yards for a pick-six score. The touchdown gave the UGA Black team an early 7-0 lead, and it also gave Stokes bragging rights in the latest reprise of a rivalry that dates back to the cozy confines of rustic Homer Sharp Stadium in Covington.
“I got a call from the sidelines, and I’m looking. It’s a pretty wide split and I’m thinking he might do a slant or he might not,” said Stokes as he diagnosed his view of the play. “But I decided I’m gonna cheat more to the slant. And luckily I see he slipped. I took a little peak at the quarterback when I knew I shouldn’t, and Fromm threw it, and me and JJ were fighting for the ball, and luckily I was the one who ended up with it and ended up with the score.”
Stokes ran back to the sideline and was given the golden spiked shoulder pads designed to celebrate a Georgia defender that forces a turnover, but not before Holloman was able to deposit a little trash talk in his ear.
“I told him it was a lucky play,” Holloman said with a smirk. “But I came back and got one on him.”
That happened in the 8:09 mark of the fourth quarter when Holloman beat Stokes on a deep post and snagged a 43-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Stetson Bennett, the former Pierce County standout who came back to Georgia after a stint at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi.
But before that play was Holloman’s prophecy.
“It was really funny because we called it out,” Holloman said. “I said it was a touchdown before we even went out there. It was funny because I was getting him back for the interception he had earlier.”
Call it another chapter in the friendly-fire rivalry between two Georgia teammates who grew up together in Covington and faced off against each other in Newton County’s most intense football rivalry.
And although the Covington pair are teammates now for the Bulldogs, it’s admittedly difficult for either player to keep their Eastside vs. Newton roots tucked away too deeply during practice time.
“Every day. We go at it every day like this,” Holloman said. “I don’t know if you guys can see it, but we’re talking the whole time, just out there having fun. I mean iron sharpens iron. I mean, like I said, I grew up with him, so we’ve been doing this for a long time. And now knowing both of us are at this level competing, it’s exciting to see.”
Stokes wasn’t completely surprised that his Newton County counterpart one-upped him later in the game.
“He said, ‘You got me on that one, but you best believe I’m gonna get you back,’” Stokes said. “So we’re out there all day battling, battling, battling, and sure enough he got me.”
Ultimately it was a 22-17 Red team win on a chilly, soggy day at Sanford Stadium. But beyond the score and even the friendly feud was the notion that both Stokes and Holloman are likely headed to be big time contributors — if not full time starters — in the 2019 season.
For Stokes, a 6-foot-1 speedster of a cornerback, he knows the kind of void that he, along with players like Tyson Campbell and Richard LeCounte will have to fill with the departure of Deandre Baker, a first-round NFL Draft pick talent.
“You can’t fill his shoes,” Stokes said. “He’s Deandre Baker. He didn’t give up a touchdown in two years. So what me and Tyson and others have to do, we have to worry about ourselves, make each other better and hopefully we’ll make our own shoes, to be honest.”
Stokes finished with four total tackles and a pass breakup to go along with his interception return for a touchdown. Holloman’s day wasn’t too shabby either, as he led the Red team with 54 receiving yards on three catches and his 43-yard touchdown grab.
Like Stokes, Holloman knows he’ll be counted on to fill voids left from guys who’ve graduated or departed early for the draft.
“Getting the ball to the playmakers,” Holloman said. “If you’re hot, get the ball to them and let them make a play. That’s what we’re about.”
Stokes said he’s embracing the leadership role thrust upon him during the offseason. It’s something he says he actually began relishing toward the end of the 2018 campaign that left Georgia on the short end of a shot at back-to-back SEC championships.
“That’s the way I pray it to be,” Stokes said. “Like, that’s the way I’ve thought since I played toward the end of last year, just wanting to be a leader for them.”
Holloman said he sees it happening, too. And since he knows Stokes’ grind from before high school to now, his assessment holds some weight.
“He’s great. He has the potential to definitely be great, as long as he keeps on working on his craft and keeps pushing himself and don’t be complacent,” Holloman said. “I definitely feel like he’s got that next-level mentality.”
Holloman also noted Stokes’ speed is something that sets him apart from other DBs. The former 3-star prospect out of Eastside was routinely running a 40-yard dash time of around 4.33 seconds during his senior year in high school. He also carved out a reputation as being one of the nation’s top high school track athletes before coming to UGA.
Holloman believes that as Stokes continues to increase his football IQ, he could become the total package as a corner.
“Eric’s getting better at learning when receivers are gonna break and stuff like that,” he said. “But his speed. It’s hard to separate from him. And he’s a DB that can make up ground.”
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had glowing remarks for both players that could clue UGA fans into how much he’ll depend on them when the 2019 season rolls around.
“JJ’s had a very consistent spring,” Smart said. “He’s physical and competitive. He runs the stop routes real well. He’s done a great job with deep balls, especially in practice. He had little slow start today, but he’s been a model of consistency. He’s got really strong hands and does some nice things with the football.”
As for Stokes, Smart continues to laud his teachability.
“He’s a kid that’s just come a long way,” Smart said. “From coming out of high school as just an athlete, he’s very conscientious to doing things the right way. If you teach Stokes something, he listens and applies it, and when you combine that with athleticism, you’ve got a good player.”
Between now and the August 31 conference matchup with Vanderbilt to start the 2019 season, both Stokes and Holloman will be looking to further cement themselves as players worthy of cracking the starting line up. That means more headed battles in practice, no doubt.
But ultimately, Holloman said the competitiveness between them doesn’t keep them from celebrating each others’ successes.
“It was a good day for us Covington boys,” Holloman said. “We both got a touchdown today, so I’m happy for that.”