UGA head coach Kirby Smart praises player performance in G-Day scrimmage
The first exciting play of the afternoon Saturday in many ways says a lot about spring football.
As Jeremiah Holloman looked in the pass from Jake Fromm, Eric Stokes made a break on the play, stripped the football from Holloman and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.
That brought a big cheer from the 52,630 Bulldog faithful that braved the nasty weather to witness a glorified practice. (And, no, it was not a cryptic dig at Florida coach Dan Mullen.)
This time last year, no Georgia fans — or even the coaches, for that matter — were talking about Stokes. The starting cornerback opposite DeAndre Baker figured to be highly touted freshman Tyson Campell. To say Stokes, who had redshirted in 2017, was an afterthought would be an overstatement. He wasn’t even that. He was just a kid who worked every day to try to improve. And while Campbell did in fact win a starting job, Stokes kept plugging away every day. He finally earned his first career start against UMass in the 11th game of the season. Stokes started against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and against Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
The pick-six Saturday was a culmination — or maybe just a continuation — of his growth and maturation.
“I thought that was a good fight for the ball, and scored with it when he got it,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s a kid that has come a long way. He really wasn’t a (defensive back) coming out of high school. He was just an athlete. He’s very conscientious to doing things the right way. When you teach Stokes something, he listens and then he applies it. When you combine that with talent, you’ve got a pretty good player.”
How many more players like Stokes are on the Bulldogs’ roster remains unknown. But to be sure, there are some — perhaps several — and one spring football game is not a reliable indicator or predictor.
Smart reiterated that point after the game. Well, that is, after he delayed his press conference to meet with some top 2020 recruits. Someone asked if the starting offensive line — Andrew Thomas, Solomon Kindley, Trey Hill, Ben Cleveland and Isaiah Wilson, from left to right — would be the starting line come fall.
“Here we go,” Smart said. “Guys, we could’ve put any lineup out there, and those guys can’t switch teams during the game. So, that was the No. 1 line for that scrimmage. What they do in the offseason, what they work out like, how they do in school, how they compete in the fall.”
To be sure, the Bulldogs are deep in talent on the offensive line. But the same could be said for several other groups. There’s open competition at almost every position except for quarterback, running back and maybe one linebacker spot with Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift and Monty Rice.
Such is the case when Smart has stacked up three consecutive recruiting class that, collectively, are second to no one in college football — Alabama notwithstanding.
Smart and the coaching staff will watch the film and grade the players just as they do for any practice. And make no mistake, that’s all this was — just another practice. But there was value in the young players experiencing a football Saturday in Athens, from going through Dawg Walk to reacting to the fans.
There were various combinations of players used on both sides of the ball, many of them including new guys, such as highly regarded freshmen linebackers Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith.
“I got to see the look in some guys’ eyes, that they were out there competing, playing hard,” Smart said. “That part was good.”
The players will have Sunday off, then go back to work. They have roughly three months before the first official preseason practice, then another 28 or so practice days — including two big scrimmages — before the season opener at Vanderbilt on August 31.
“There’s still two springs left before the first game,” Smart said. “We have two more versions of what we just did before we play a game. There’s some guys that are not here right now on the offensive line. To think who’s going to be out there, you guys will to predict all that. It’s going to come by what happens on the field for us.”
Now comes the hardest part for fans and coaches alike. The long wait until the first kickoff.