Eric Stokes is coming off his first full season as a starting cornerback for UGA football. Despite his youth, he’s already one of the best corners in the SEC.
That’s by no means a bad thing though, as cornerbacks that tend to attract attention often do so because of poor play. If they do their job in locking down receivers, the ball shouldn’t come anywhere near them; and that’s exactly what describes Stokes’ play last season.
While no corner is perfect, Stokes played exceptionally well, especially in high profile games. Against Kyle Trask and Joe Burrow, the two best quarterbacks Georgia faced, in arguably the two most important games of the year for the team, Stokes was extremely impressive, allowing just 3 catches on 5 targets for 41 yards against Florida and only 1 catch on 2 targets for 9 yards against LSU.
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Looking at the Florida game first, Stokes played very well in coverage. Even on two of the completions he allowed, he was in great position but simply failed to make a play on the ball. The ball skills are something that will only improve over time as he becomes more experienced, so it’s promising that the physical coverage skills are already present and it’s just the recognition that needs work.
Speaking of recognition, there were two plays in the LSU game where Stokes wasn’t the defender in coverage, but failed to recognize plays, causing big plays for the offense. The first came on Terrace Marshall’s first touchdown of the game, where a play-action drew Stokes up to the line of scrimmage, leaving Marshall one on one with J.R. Reed. This resulted in an easy touchdown pass over the top of Stokes and to the outside of Reed.
The second instance occurred when LSU lined Justin Jefferson up in the backfield. This is a gimmick formation the Tigers ran a number of times throughout the season with Jefferson running a flat route for an easy completion and a chance to create yards after catch. However, Stokes failed to diagnose that and left the flat wide open, making for an easy catch and run on Jefferson’s part.
Those plays aside though, Stokes was excellent, locking down a very talented receiving corps. He matched up with Biletnikoff Award Winner Ja’marr Chase for much of the game and held him to no catches on just 1 target before LSU moved him to the other side of the formation, presumably to give him more opportunities by getting him away from Stokes.
With all this upside, it’s no wonder that Pro Football Focus ranks him as the third-best returning defensive back in the SEC, behind just Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. Considering they’re both projected as first-round picks in their respective draft classes, there’s no shame in being ranked after them.
Plus, as previously mentioned, Stokes has plenty of room for him to improve his ball skills. If he can improve on that, his already elite coverage will put him in great position to intercept passes, which he hasn’t done yet in his collegiate career. All of this means that should he continue to develop, he could very well grow into a bonafide lockdown corner and a top-five corner in the country by the end of the season.