Georgia Bulldogs fortunate to still have Ben Cleveland around

Georgia offensive lineman Ben Cleveland (74) during the Bulldogs’ practice in Athens, Ga., on Mon., Aug. 17, 2020. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith)
Georgia offensive lineman Ben Cleveland (74) during the Bulldogs’ practice in Athens, Ga., on Mon., Aug. 17, 2020. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith)

Credit: Chamberlain Smith

Credit: Chamberlain Smith

It had been a while since we saw or heard from Ben Cleveland, but when we finally did this week, it was good to see he hasn’t changed much.

Georgia’s gargantuan offensive lineman from Toccoa affectionately known as “Big Country” had been conspicuously out of sight since the end of last season. That’s saying something when one stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 340 pounds.

But Cleveland missed the Bulldogs' Sugar Bowl trip to New Orleans because he was academically ineligible. Nine-and-a-half months and a global pandemic later, Cleveland completely owned up to that and was happy to report that he has put all that behind him.

Now a senior, he said he has gotten his academic house in order and is glad to be back anchoring Georgia’s offensive line from the right-guard position.

“Parts of me sometimes wish I had taken school a little more serious and stuff like that,” Cleveland said in a video conference call with reporters following Thursday’s practice. “Obviously, it has taken me so long to get a degree; I should have had that a couple of years ago. But, the relationships and stuff that have been built, they will never be able to be replaced.”

Georgia is certainly glad he is still around, as Cleveland stands as one of only two offensive linemen with any extensive game experience for the Bulldogs. Cleveland started seven of the 13 games he played in last season and has 42 games played under his belt, including 16 starts. That’s a big deal on a line where only junior center Trey Hill has started more than two games in his career.

Almost all of Cleveland’s snaps have come at right guard, where he started seven games last season, though he does have some right-tackle experience. As it has worked out this year, 6-7, 310-pound sophomore Owen Condon seems to have established a stronghold at tackle, giving the Bulldogs a massive right offensive flank.

“We kind of mesh well,” Cleveland said. “We’re have that good relationship where, ‘you pick me up and I’ll pick you up,’ things like that. He’s definitely been holding his own over there at that right-tackle spot and making some good improvement. I hope to see some good things out of him.”

Cleveland was a consensus high school All-American with some 5-star recruiting rankings when he inked with the Bulldogs and new coach Kirby Smart out of Stephens County High. But after an initial redshirt season, he has battled injuries and an unwillingness to buckle down on his academics. Cleveland is an avid outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing and a little bit of golf as well. Too often, he let those pursuits take precedence over his studies.

Last December, the Bulldogs showed up in New Orleans without Cleveland. Some wondered if the NFL had attracted his interest. But as his father, Derek Cleveland soon cleared up, nothing could have been further from the truth.

“I think my dad kind of shot that one and let the whole wide world know I was academically ineligible for (the bowl game),” Cleveland said with a laugh. “I still haven’t heard the end of that, from coaches and everybody else. But it definitely wasn’t a decision I made on my own, to skip out on my team like that.”

That served as a wake-up call for Cleveland, who is one of only two Bulldogs remaining from Smart’s first recruiting class (defensive tackle Julian Rochester is the other). Since the calendar flipped to 2020, Cleveland said he has passed 30 hours of classwork. He soon will graduate with a degree in criminal justice.

“It was kind of one of those hard-learned lessons I had to learn,” Cleveland said with a grin. “I had to get it together and everything to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

With two weeks remaining until the season opener against Arkansas, Georgia’s offensive line is coming into focus. With Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer to the left of Hill and Cleveland and Condon to the right, the Bulldogs feel like they have a representative group that can rival most SEC offensive lines in size, strength and pedigree.

In the meantime, they’re all trying to master the new system being implemented by first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken. That hasn’t been made any easier by the pandemic, which chased Georgia football players from campus from March to June and put limitations on practice times and opportunities ever since.

But Cleveland feels like the Bulldogs are starting to come around.

“It was difficult not having spring ball,” he said. “It really put a lot of stress on all of us to learn this new offense and pick up on everything in a lot shorter amount of time than what we normally would have. But I think our guys have handled it extremely well, and we’ve been progressing every single day. I think we’re way ahead of where people think we should be now.”

At the end of it all, Cleveland doesn’t believe the offense will be radically different. With Zamir White and James Cook leading a talented group of backs, he thinks Georgia fans will still see a decent dose of run game.

“It’s always a happy balance,” Cleveland said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball to throw the ball, and you’ve got to be able to throw the ball to run the ball. That’s kind of been our philosophy since I’ve been here, to do what we can in the run game and throw it when we need to and to run it when we need to. I feel that’s served us pretty well over the last few years.”

And so has Ben Cleveland. The Bulldogs are truly blessed that “Big Country” is still around five years later. And as he points out, he has been fortunate as well.

“I appreciate all of these coaches and everything that they’ve done for me the last five years,” Cleveland said. “A lot of good relationships have been made over these last few years, and I’m sure they’ll continue to carry on after this next year is over.”