Georgia CB Eric Stokes ready for Florida challenge

Eric Stokes swears he wasn’t aware of the streak he has going. It’s a pretty good one, too.

Seven games into the 2019 season, the sophomore cornerback has not allowed an opposing receiver to catch a touchdown pass.

“I didn’t even notice that,” Stokes said following the Bulldogs’ Tuesday practice. “I just try to go out there and do my job and make sure that I’m not the person that’s letting down my team.”

Georgia fans will recall that Deandre Baker managed to get through his senior season without allowing a touchdown, and that helped him land an NFL first-round contract.

That Stokes has been able to do that as a sophomore is pretty amazing considering the ground he’s had to cover since arriving at UGA. And it will be even more amazing if Stokes can keep the streak alive Saturday against Florida.

In the No. 6 Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC), the Bulldogs will face the deepest, most talented and – here’s that word again – explosive receiving corps they’ve encountered to date.

Thanks to the return of junior Kedarius Toney from injury, Florida goes a solid seven deep in its wideout rotation. But wideouts are just a part of the pass-defending equation for the Gators. Defenses also have to find a way to deal with 6-foot-6, 239-pound tight end Kyle Pitts.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Pitts, who plays more like a receiver than a true tight end, leads Florida with 391 yards on 35 catches and four touchdowns. Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs rave about the sophomore from Pennsylvania, who played only sparingly last season.

“As talented as I’ve seen,” Smart said. “We knew that coming out of high school. We recruited him, and we couldn’t get him. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s a matchup (problem), he’s got size, speed. He’s got everything you want.

“I don’t think the SEC has seen a tight end over the years (like him) because he’s different. He’s 50 percent wideout and 50 percent tight end.”

The task of defending Pitts will be the primary responsibility of Georgia’s linebackers and nickel backs. But it could fall to anybody because Florida moves him around to create mismatches.

“He’s a big guy, a true (6-foot-6), a wide range, his catch radius is out of this world,” senior safety J.R. Reed said. “So we’ve got to play real physical and be real tight in coverage.”

Pitts would be tough enough if that’s all Florida could hit with. But they’ve assembled an overall receiver corps that rivals those of Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. That’s because they’re varied as well as deep.

The group is led by fifth-year senior Van Jefferson, who transferred there from Ole Miss last season. He has 27 catches. Then the Gators have a bunch of 6-foot-tall speedsters. From senior Freddie Swain down to redshirt freshman Jacob Copeland, they all have between 12 and 21 receptions.

That was before getting back Toney, who reportedly is the fastest and biggest vertical threat.

“They all do something different, and they all have different things to them, so knowing (who’s in) will be a real key for us as a DB unit,” Stokes said. “You have to prepare for each one differently.”

Preparation, as it turns out, has been a key to Stokes’ success. He’d never played defensive back full time until he arrived at Georgia and then hadn’t played much until he was pressed into service midway through last season because of injuries. Stokes relieved Tyson Campbell, a former 5-star signee, at the corner opposite Baker, and has been on an upward trajectory since.

But Stokes arrived at UGA with the most important asset for a defensive back – speed. A former state sprint champion, Stokes needed to master the subtleties of playing cornerback in the SEC, which is no small thing.

That’s where Stokes has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs.

“The guy was raw,” Smart said. “He has built himself through hard work and habits. He still has room to improve; he’d be the first to tell you that. But I’m proud of how he works every day. He gives you everything he’s got. And he’s a great asset to our program off the field.”

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More than ever, Georgia needs Stokes to be an asset on the field Saturday. He has been all season, which has contributed significantly to the Bulldogs being the nation’s No. 7-ranked defense, and No. 9 in defensive pass efficiency.

But Georgia’s glowing statistics have to be tempered by the teams it has played. Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs haven’t faced a passing attack like the one the Gators will bring to TIAA Bank Field. And Florida’s overall offense was enhanced by senior Kyle Trask taking over at quarterback.

Georgia’s cause also should be helped by Campbell’s return. The sophomore starter has been out since the third game with a toe injury.

“It’s tremendous,” Stokes said of Campbell’s return. “It just brings us more depth, and I know for a fact he’s got some leadership in him. He played a lot last year, so he already knows what’s going on. Having him back is great.”

Having Stokes is a good start. But having Campbell along with Reed and Richard LeCounte at safety and Mark Webb and Divaad Wilson at star, the Bulldogs feel like they’re as well suited to defend the Gators as anybody.

“It’s a challenge, but I know for us we’ve just got to go ahead and embrace the challenge and enjoy it and prepare for it,” Stokes said. “I know I’m getting ready.”