GREEN BAY – Statistically, Eric Stokes displayed a monumental shift in his game over his final year at Georgia.
While playing in 27 contests with 16 starts over the 2018-19 seasons, Stokes didn't have a single interception. Then during 10 games in 2020, he picked off four passes and returned two for touchdowns.
So how did the Packers' first-round draft pick make such big strides so quickly? His position coach the last two years with the Bulldogs, Charlton Warren, believes two things were at the core of it.
First, from the time Warren (who's now the defensive coordinator at Indiana) arrived in 2019 as Georgia's defensive backs coach, he saw in Stokes a determination to learn not just his responsibilities within a given defensive call, but everybody's. He wanted to understand the concepts on a big-picture level.
"He would ask (in practice) to play other positions. He would ask to go in and play nickel, and he would ask to move to safety for reps," Warren said in a phone interview with packers.com. "So through all your spring and summer workouts over a 2½-year period, he got 100 reps at 'star,' 25 reps each at safety. He played both corners, 25 reps at dime. In that way, he was cross-trained, which made him learn all three levels."
Warren added that by Stokes' redshirt junior season last year, he could tell him what the three-technique tackle was doing up front on certain third-down calls, or what the dime or "star" was up to, no matter where he lined up himself.
In turn, he fully grasped when he had to stay over the top on a route, or when he could aggressively attack the ball, and the results followed.
"He got interceptions in certain calls because he understood where his help was and what the strength of the defense was," Warren said. "I've always talked to guys about knowing the strengths of the defense and being able to mitigate the weakness of a defense, and he did a really good job with that premise."
The other factor in all the 2020 highlights for the All-Southeastern Conference speedster was a dedication to ball skills. If there was a special-teams period in practice Stokes wasn't involved in, he was working on ball fundamentals with Warren.
His coach would simulate the finish to a play by putting him downfield at the spot a receiver might either take off deep or break off his route. Warren would put him in a positive position with the ball on its way, and he'd have to get it. He'd also put him in a negative spot, and he'd still have to judge the ball correctly and make a play on it.
"It paid dividends," Warren said. "Naturally, he just had to work at that. Now, you saw him finishing on the ball at the top of routes, where you wouldn't see that as a freshman or sophomore. You wouldn't see him do that at that great of a clip."
Of course, Stokes' last two years in the SEC weren't just about progressing toward the splash plays. He also had to match up against some of the country's best receivers on a weekly basis, five of whom – if you count Florida tight end Kyle Pitts along with Kadarius Toney, plus Alabama's Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, and LSU's Ja'Marr Chase – were drafted in the first 20 picks of the opening round last Thursday night.
Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst emphasized after selecting Stokes at No. 29 overall in the draft that the personnel department reviewed Stokes' film from those particular games the most. Warren said that while Stokes relished the challenges, he didn't get outside himself when it came to the toughest assignments.
"It was just another Saturday and just another receiver," Warren said. "We were going to make adjustments game-planning-wise, but we were going to be who we are as players, and I thought whether it was Waddle, whether it was Kyle Pitts, a guy from Arkansas, whoever, our approach was always the same.
"He felt he was always mentally prepared for everything, so no real matchup stands out to me. It just stands out the deep balls not given up, the touchdown throws not given up, how he was in such great position all year."
Regarding where to focus his work to succeed in the NFL, Warren said it's about polishing and sharpening his technique at the line of scrimmage. As that continues to mesh with his athletic talent, Stokes' arrow will continue to point up.
"He's so long and so fast, the more he can perfect the on-ball mechanics in press coverage, his game can get astronomically better, and that's for a lot of players across the SEC," Warren said. "At 6-1, 190, 4.25 … man, if you win the first three yards …
"It's gonna be hard to run by him, and you won't throw it over his head, so if he can win those throws from zero to 12 (yards) because he has great fundamentals, the sky's the limit for someone with that God-given ability."
Bright and energetic, Stokes apparently was sending Warren texts between 2-3 a.m. after he was drafted, and the big heart he has – whether it relates to his passion on the field or doing community activities with kids off of it – is "natural, not fake."
Warren was initially drawn to Stokes, an unheralded recruit who didn't even play defense until late in high school, due to his likeable personality and hunger to succeed. He believes his former pupil will make the same first impression on the Packers.
"I told him, hey, that's all over now, you got drafted, so move on to the next thing," Warren said.
"The kid always smiles and has great perspective. He's that guy in the locker room, in the meeting room, he's ready to go to work and he's just looking to find a way. When you have those kind of guys, whether you're down 12 or up 20, they can pull you through and help you finish the right way."
Take a look at Packers CB Eric Stokes during his college career.