Eric Stokes’ speed was never in question; it was just a matter of who, and how many, were paying attention. Stokes, a former 3-star recruit in the class of 2017, is about to reach his dream; but, outside of Stokes’ familiar circles, the speedy cornerback out of Georgia hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves. And that’s all he’s asking for.
There were already a number of eyes on Stokes entering Georgia’s Pro Day on Wednesday. He clocked a 4.24-second 40-yard dash at the House of Athlete Combine in early March; an event championed by HOA founder and former All-Pro wide receiver Brandon Marshall in lieu of the NFL’s annual scouting combine. Stokes’ time nearly rivaled the official combine record, a blazing 4.22-second sprint by John Ross III in 2017. Stokes nearly matched his time a week and a half later in front of league evaluators. He ran a 4.25- and 4.28-second 40-yard dash on Wednesday. In a nod to his track-and-field days at Eastside High School, Stokes was once again the fastest. This time, more people took notice.
“It’s amazing, people finally seeing my speed to where they’re finally acknowledging it, just not pushing it aside,” Stokes said after the day’s event. “Now, they actually see I’m really that fast; it’s amazing.”
Teams are getting more than speed with Stokes, but it was his quickness that first caught the eye of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and assistant head coach and defensive backs coach Mel Tucker. The two talked about Stokes at length, playing his film from Smart’s football camp, specifically tailored as a non-contact camp simulating the exact practice routine of the Bulldogs for recruiting prospects. They turned to Stokes’ high school tape, where, as a running back, he carried the rock and outran everybody else on the field.
Eastside High was roughly an hour south of Georgia; Stokes was just down the road from the then-second-year head coach, showing his impressive speed and length. Some, well, most, were deterred by his rating; but Smart didn’t consider the undervalued rating. He looked at the tape and saw raw talent. Stokes was very green and playing primarily as a defensive back came with a steep learning curve. Most players don’t want to redshirt entering college, eager to play and begin their journey to the NFL. But afterward, during Stokes’ redshirt freshman season, he developed, working closely with Tucker to become a more well-rounded defensive back.
“He was a hard-nosed, getting-better player, and he had a long way to go but by his redshirt freshman year he came on and had to come in the game, I think against Auburn, and played really well,” Smart said. “He played good against Missouri and just grew. He kept getting better. I’m proud of what Stokes was able to do. He was always fast, that wasn’t the question, but what he did is he improved a lot of areas where he wasn’t great and became a much better player.”
There’s a chip on Stokes’ shoulder—a chip that is a prerequisite at the position and one that’s solidified the success of the NFL’s best defensive backs—that allows him to play at an elite enough level to garner Round 1 conversation. But equating Stokes’ value to his athletic ability alone would be a grave disservice to the person he’s grown to be. While he thrives off the underdog role, he’s deserving of the same attention of his higher-touted peers. The ratings never really matter; it was the respect that came with it. If Stokes didn’t get it—if Stokes still doesn’t get it—the chip will get bigger and his ceiling will rise.
“At the end of the day, how they say, the cream gon’ rise to the top, so eventually, I’m gonna rise,” he said.
It’s evident from the high standard he holds himself to; it’s not perfection. When playing the NFL’s most difficult position, perfection is unattainable. It’s simply being better, and in this case, out preparing, the player he’s lined up against. Stokes, no matter how fast he is, will get beat at the next level. The receiver he’s guarding might not be quicker or more athletic, but they’ll always have the advantage. Stokes levels that playing field as much as he can with preparation. The determination he showed in his redshirt freshman season and throughout his college career is part of the overall willingness he has to learn, to grow.
Despite Stokes’ success at Georgia’s Pro Day and the interest that will follow, he was thinking about everything he could have done better. It’s going to eat him alive, he admitted.
Stokes only has four years as a true defensive back. He’s confident he’s scheme versatile, but also admits there will be a learning curve. He’ll adapt, it might be a little rough around the edges, “but once I get there,” he said, “I’m going to be good to go.”
“He’s a high-character young man that’s done so much in our program,” Smart said. “People talk about the value on the field and the plays he’s made and the speed he has; for all those things he’s great at, he’s a lot better person than anything else. He’s a guy that goes and works with the Boys & Girls Clubs. He reads to young kids across Athens, [Georgia]. He’s a big brother to a sister who I know means a lot to him. He’s meant a lot to our organization; he’ll mean a lot to the next organization he goes to both on and off the field.”
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