On his first day of practice at Georgia, Eric Stokes was approached by a future first-round pick, fellow cornerback DeAndre Baker, and let in on a secret.
Whatever you do, just don’t get beat on no nine balls.
Baker meant that, if in practice he happened to be facing a wideout running a straight go or fly roue, Stokes had better be behind the receiver to prevent the kind of touchdown that tends to leave emotional scars and swing games. There were few things head coach Kirby Smart hated more. Of course, Baker had no idea he was talking to the fastest man in Georgia—literally. If any prospect was losing a footrace, it wasn’t going to be Stokes.
Stokes had the tendency to sneak up on people, like the time he was just a gangly freshman competing in Georgia’s high school track championships. In a photo that would later become famous because of another participant, future Browns running back Nick Chubb, Stokes was getting his footing, head down, calm as a warm breeze, while the muscle-bound Chubb leapt so high in the air during his warmups that, because of the angle of the photo, it looked like he had cleared all his competitors’ heads. Stokes, who looked like he had stumbled into the adult race by accident, finished just 0.002 seconds behind Chubb that year, matching the future Pro Bowler stride for stride.
Baker wasn’t the only one. Few people knew about Stokes on the early morning car rides to school from the housing authority in Covington, Ga., where Stokes would tell his assistant football coach and track coach, Frankey Iverson, that he needed to figure out some way—any way—to get grandma out of this place (he plans on using his first paycheck to buy her a house).
A coach from Ole Miss recommended switching the kid from running back, where he’d been living out his juke-happy boyhood Reggie Bush fantasy, to cornerback. He went to Georgia Tech to watch the Yellow Jackets play Florida State and glued himself to Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey, selling himself on the position and the plan to make it out of Georgia. Stokes won statewide sprint races his sophomore and junior years, and took the 100-meter crown at the Adidas Dream Mile despite being invited as a last-minute filler. He begged Iverson to move him from his dominant space, the 400 meters, back to the 100 meters for the end of his high school career and was told that he could only do so if he ran faster than anyone else at the school. In his next race, Stokes smoked the field while pointing up at the press box, letting Iverson know it was time to pay up on the bet. On the football field, he was twitchy and dynamic.
Iverson said that, while no team has bothered to call and ask, in all of their time spent together, hundreds of hand- and computer-timed 40-yard dashes and 100-meter sprints, he has never seen Eric slip below the timed equivalent of a 4.3 second 40-yard dash. At Georgia’s pro day this year, he ran a 4.25.
“We’ve had some fast kids, but, he’s … lightyears ahead,” Iverson said. “We always feel like speed is speed. If you’re fast on a track, you’re fast on a football field. The difference with Eric is that he’s so competitive. Eric has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. Off the football field, he’s the warmest and sweetest kid. When it’s competition time, I don’t even recognize him.”
When it comes to the 2021 class’s cornerback hierarchy, Stokes’s name is rarely mentioned, despite the fairly obvious pitch. As the NFL continues to find ways to put fast offensive weapons in space, why wouldn’t teams look a little closer at the draft’s fastest corner? Despite having spent just five years at the position, Stokes’s technique has refined to match his athletic skill, separating him from prospects who may look more like an Al Davis fever dream with immense bust potential. He picked off four passes in nine games in the shortened 2020 season. According to Sports Info Solutions, Stokes allowed an opposing quarterback completion rate of 38% in 2020. In the SEC. Against receivers like DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Ja'Marr Chase, each of whom might come off the board before him. Teams throwing against him in 2020 experienced a negative expected points added rating of -16, higher than that of Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. He was taking away more than half a point per target.
Over the last few weeks, according to a league source, his meeting schedule has ballooned. Stokes has had at least a third (but often a fourth or fifth) Zoom meeting with a dozen teams. There is a belief among teams that he will not drop any lower than the mid-30s.
“The film speaks for itself,” Stokes said. “Every year, historically, I’ve faced supposedly the best historical offense each year. In 2018, Alabama. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, that was a nasty offense and I believe I did my thing. In 2019, [LSU]. Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson. I did my thing again.
“This year, I did decent against DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle. I played my best against some of the best.”
According to Pro Football Focus' premium college stats, over three years when matched up against a horde of first-round picks from Alabama and LSU (Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle) Stokes allowed a total of seven catches on 11 targets for two touchdowns. The longest completion against any of those players was 23 yards.
Those who know Stokes insist his game is different from other track converts, in that his speed is functional and not just cultivated for largely meaningless workout measurements. In high school, he was trained as a 400-meter runner with the theory that all runners decelerate at some point, so why not maximize the sprint volume? Why not be faster for longer? Why not break your new team’s GPS data? He’s also physical, grading out as one of the better press corners in this year’s draft. A spin through some of his college tape is surprisingly violent; a montage of interception returns showing him fighting off defenders, blowing up quarterbacks on corner blitzes and busting up middle-range passes hanging over the middle of the field.
Against Alabama in the 2018 national championship, with Alabama driving inside the 10-yard line, Stokes was lined up against Jeudy, later a first-round pick of the Broncos. After Stokes jammed him at the line, the Crimson Tide offense sent a tight end out into the flat to the same side, creating somewhat of a rub route meant to disadvantage the corner, slow him down and create separation for Jeudy. Stokes recovered in short space, unboxed his 6' frame and broke up the pass in the end zone, despite a perfect throw. He’d made a habit out of knifing through schemes designed to put him off pace.
Stokes also added: He never did get beat on the nine ball in a game, either. At Georgia he gave up just three total touchdowns in three years.
“I’m gonna give you everything I got. Games? I’m sorry. This is where they watch you. It’s the real deal. I’m not gonna get beat on a nine ball in a game,” he said.
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