GREEN BAY, Wis. – Eric Stokes’ sprint to the NFL as a first-round pick by the Green Bay Packers started almost exactly five years ago.
On May 14, 2016, Stokes won Georgia state championships in the 100 and 200 meters as a junior at Eastside High School. The University of Georgia’s defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, was there.
“I’m at the Georgia state track and field meet and saw this kid win the 100 meters and I said, “Holy, Smokes, who the heck is this guy?’” Tucker said last week. “He was a real thin kid but he was long and obviously super-fast. I sent a couple texts and found out he was a football player named Eric Stokes and was actually in my recruiting area.
“So, when I got back to the office, I looked in the database and he was in there as a running back. Obviously, he wasn’t highly rated as a running back at 160 pounds but I pulled up his tape. His highlight tape, every play on there was him playing running back. The very last play of the highlight film, as I remember, was a clip of him playing defense. It was one play. So, I did some research. Even though he was a really skinny kid, he was tough. He was a tough runner. So, I did some more investigating and talked to the coaches and told them, ‘His future is going to be as a defensive back.’”
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Stokes was invited to a Georgia football camp, where he competed on defense.
“He was very, very, very raw. You could tell that he hadn’t played much defensive back at all,” Tucker, who played collegiately at Wisconsin and is now the head coach at Michigan State, recalled.
Tucker saw a future star and spoke to Eastside’s coach, Troy Hoff. “By the grace of God,” as Tucker put it, Hoff had just hired former Pro Bowl defensive back and 1988 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Erik McMillan to his coaching staff.
“I got with the coach,” Tucker continued, “and said, ‘Listen, this kid needs to play more defense. I know you’ve got to play him wherever you’ve got to play him on offense to win games but he needs to play on defense. If he can play on defense, then I think this guy could be an NFL guy’ because I saw the traits and his speed and his length and his competitiveness and his toughness. That coach worked with him over the summer after he came to our camp.”
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart didn’t immediately offer a scholarship but Stokes stayed on Tucker’s radar. A few games into Stokes’ senior season, Tucker went back to the film. This time, there were clips of Stokes playing defense and offense.
Tucker was impressed.
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“I said, ‘If this kid can improve from the summer to these three games in his senior year in this short period of time, just imagine what this guy will be like in four years from now or three years or two years,’” Tucker said. “It was like there was no way that we couldn’t take a chance on this guy. I didn’t think it was taking a chance because I saw the improvement. Going from when I saw him at a track meet and then a summer camp and then the first three games, I said, ‘This is a no-brainer. This guy’s going to be an NFL guy – big time.’ But he was extremely raw.”
Stokes redshirted in 2017 and got his big break in 2018 against Missouri, when touted starter Tyson Campbell was injured. Stokes blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in that game. With offenses shying away from premier corner Deandre Baker, Stokes was tested early and often and continually was up to the task. According to Sports Info Solutions, he allowed a catch rate of 33 percent in 2018, followed by 47 percent in 2019 and 38 percent in 2020. Paired with that sprinter’s speed that showed up with a 4.29-second time in the 40-yard dash at Georgia's pro day, Stokes sprinted from a high school track to a spot in Green Bay’s secondary.
“He played a lot at Georgia from an early time there and steadily grew as a player,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “The things that really stuck out about him, his explosiveness is off the charts. He’s a strong, strong athlete. I think they do a great job down there at Georgia training those guys and, as he continued to play in the SEC, I think you saw his confidence continue to grow and grow and grow. That led him to have the year that he had this year. As we got to know him through this process, he just fit our profile, of not only a player but a person. I think he’s going to be a great fit, not only on the field but in our locker room.”