ATHENS, Ga. — Cornerback Deandre Baker, the first winner of the Jim Thorpe Award in Georgia football history, is the overwhelming pick to be the first former Bulldogs player selected this week at the NFL draft in Nashville.
Most draft analysts have projected Baker being tabbed during Thursday night's opening round, and those he left behind will be pulling for him while continuing to move on.
"We can only worry about ourselves right now and just try to improve day by day," redshirt sophomore cornerback Eric Stokes said following Saturday's G-Day spring game in Sanford Stadium. "Hopefully we can do the best we can do. I think I had a strong finish to last season, and I'm trying to come on even stronger to help out the team."
Stokes started three of the final four games last season, collecting five tackles in the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas in which Baker sat out, and broke up a pass in each of the final five contests. His breakups against Auburn and against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game occurred in the end zone.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Covington replaced Tyson Campbell in the starting lineup, but the Bulldogs have exited spring with those two as the projected starters with touted newcomers DJ Daniel and Tyrique Stevenson in relief.
"Eric is a kid who's come a long way," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "He really wasn't a DB coming out of high school. He was really just an athlete, but he is very conscientious about doing things the right way.
"When you teach him something, he listens and then applies it, and when you combine that with ability, you've got a pretty good player."
Georgia fans were not lamenting the departure of Baker three plays into the G-Day game, when Stokes wrestled away a Jake Fromm pass intended for Jeremiah Holloman and raced 39 yards for a stunning touchdown. Stokes and Campbell also broke up passes to stake the Black team, which contained the starting defense and the backup offense, to a 10-3 lead in the second quarter.
The Red team ultimately rallied, however, with backup quarterback Stetson Bennett connecting with Holloman on a 43-yard touchdown strike at the expense of Stokes midway through the fourth quarter.
"I gave up a touchdown, so today was not my best day," Stokes said. "I always think about the bad. I gave up the touchdown, and I gave up a completion on third-and-4 or third-and-5.
"I'll give credit to the Red team, but everybody knows the Black team really earned it."
Smart praised Stokes and the rest of the secondary for showing noticeable improvement this spring. Though the Bulldogs no longer have one of their most decorated defensive backs, their mood moving forward is far more optimistic than somber.
"Deandre Baker is a hard person to replace," Stokes said. "He knew the technique. He didn't give up a touchdown in two years, so that's really hard to replace.
"We still can be one of the best secondaries around. We just have to come in with the mindset of not wasting any days. We can be the best out there."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.