Eric Stokes could be nearing his first start for Georgia

Georgia redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Stokes (27) has been a reserve this season but made a key stop against Auburn last weekend and could start this Saturday when the Bulldogs host UMass.

ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes has spent most of this season residing in anonymity.

The redshirt freshman from the Atlanta suburb of Covington blocked a punt and scored a touchdown during the 43-29 win at Missouri on Sept. 22. He has come off the bench to replace five-star freshman Tyson Campbell at the corner spot opposite Deandre Baker, and Stokes is the first Bulldogs player to wear jersey No. 27 since four-year running back Nick Chubb.

"To be honest, I didn't think anything of that," said Stokes, who wore No. 41 while redshirting. "Then people started making a big deal about it. Everybody was like, 'You've got Chubb's number. You've got Chubb's number.'

"It's really just a number to me."

Georgia's new No. 27 made his biggest play in Sanford Stadium during last Saturday's 27-10 win over Auburn. With the Tigers leading 7-6 midway through the second quarter and facing a third-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham threw over the middle for receiver Seth Williams.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Williams has been a bright spot during an otherwise mediocre year for Auburn's offense, scoring two touchdowns in the 28-24 defeat of Texas A&M, but the 6-1, 185-pound Stokes made sure there would be no score this night as he broke up Stidham's pass.

"That was a huge play, holding them to a field goal instead of them going up 14-6," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. "Eric Stokes is one of the hardest workers on our team, and he is the epitome of team. The guy hasn't complained or fussed. All he does is work, and all he does is get better.

"He's also one of the brightest kids. You teach him something, and he knows it and applies it to the game."

Smart said Tuesday night in a news conference that Stokes has been working with the first team through the first two practices this week.

Stokes has played in nine of 10 games this year for the Bulldogs, who are 9-1 entering Saturday afternoon's game against visiting UMass. He has compiled eight tackles, one tackle for loss and five pass breakups, which ranks second on the team to Baker.

"He stays extra in practice, because he wants to make the game easier and be more prepared than the guy across from him," defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. "When you're doing that, then you've got the upper hand. In a league like this, the room for errors is very small, so you want to make sure you have the edge."

Said Baker: "Eric is like me. He loves to compete. He's never scared of the moment, and he loves big-time plays."

Whether his latest big-time play will help result in his first start of the season remains to be seen. Smart said Campbell and Stokes are very similar due to their youth and speed, with both having competed in track.

Stokes is just happy to add a memorable defensive moment on top of his 8-yard return of the blocked punt at Mizzou, and he's looking to add more.

"I knew that my time was coming," he said. "I couldn't pout or do anything like that. We always say that it's 'next man up,' and you never know who is going to go down or who is going to go in for them.

"You always have to prepare for it just like any other day."

Odds and ends

The Bulldogs remained No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings behind the top four of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan. Georgia practiced indoors for a second consecutive day. Smart said redshirt sophomore guard Ben Cleveland (fractured fibula) is not at 100 percent even though he played in the Auburn game. Former Georgia running back commitment John Emery committed Tuesday to LSU.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.