East­side de­fen­sive back mak­ing a name for him­self.

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL STOVALL Gs­to­vall@cov­news.com

When Eric Stokes first showed up on the East­side High foot­ball side­lines, he might not have stayed there for long if a stiff wind would’ve come through Sharp Sta­dium.

“I was too skinny as a fresh­man,” Stokes said with a chuckle. “I weighed maybe 140 or 145 pounds.”

But the 6-foot, 2-inch, now-180-pound cor­ner­back has al­ways had the long frame, ac­cord­ing to East­side foot­ball coach Troy Hoff.

“At a young age, he was light, long and gan­gly,” Hoff said. “He had the frame and some abil­ity, we ob­vi­ously knew that. And he was tremen­dously com­pet­i­tive.”

Stokes’ com­pet­i­tive na­ture has al­ways been a sta­ple of his per­son­al­ity — per­haps early on to make up for his deficit in size. But now that he’s past the place of get­ting pushed around by big­ger op­po­nents, he still plays with that chip on his shoul­der. You can hear it when he talks about his pride in East­side foot­ball.

“Peo­ple don’t re­spect us when we’re out there play­ing,” he said. “If you see us play, you’ll see that we’re al­ways the small­est team, and peo­ple think, ‘Oh, we’re gonna run through these boys.’ But by the end of the game they know we might be small, but we can get at you for the whole four quar­ters.”

You could prob­a­bly get a wit­ness or two from Class AAAAAAA New­ton High to at­test to that. East­side lit­er­ally took its big­ger, in-county ri­val to the wire in a game that ended as a 41-41 tie. In that game Stokes had four tack­les, four pass breakups and reg­is­tered a rush­ing touch­down.

“It felt great to play them like that,” he said. “They had us as a big, old un­der­dog. Had us los­ing by like 21 points. Ev­ery­body was with New­ton, but they saw East­side bat­tling.”

In fact, many of Stokes’ most mem­o­rable mo­ments of his high school ca­reer have come against New­ton. The very first game he started dur­ing his sopho­more sea­son was against the Rams, and he used his per­for­mance then as barom­e­ter for the kind of player he could be­come.

“I re­mem­ber that sopho­more game against them, I got in and made the best of it,” he said. “I got in and made a big block. Then one got drilled on that block too. I think I scored that night also. It just made me feel like I could play with any­body.”

Fast for­ward two years, and about 40 pounds later, and the speedy de­fen­sive back is turn­ing heads and rais­ing eye­brows far beyond the bor­ders of New­ton County.

At last count, Stokes has 17 Divi­sion I foot­ball schol­ar­ship of­fers. Many of those are com­ing from some of col­lege foot­ball’s blue blood pro­grams such as LSU, and oth­ers from places like West Vir­ginia, Vir­ginia Tech, Louisville, Mis­souri and Ole Miss.

But though Stokes hasn’t nar­rowed down a top-five, or any­thing like that, there’s one of­fer on his ta­ble that may pos­si­bly stand out from some of the oth­ers.

“My dream school has al­ways been Florida,” Stokes said. “Just the state, the tra­di­tion of the state of Florida. Florida is like DB Univer­sity. I’ve al­ways thought about play­ing foot­ball there.”

Stokes has the world class speed that could prob­a­bly land him vir­tu­ally any­where he wants to go. Con­sis­tently clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.28 sec­onds, Stokes has won much ac­claim on the track and field cir­cuit as well.

As a sopho­more he won state in 400 me­ters, and as a ju­nior he took home the state crown in the 100 and 200 me­ters. He was the over­all class cham­pion in the 100 me­ters also in 2015. Beyond his speed, the unique thing about Stokes’ tal­ent is how fast he’s caught on to play­ing cor­ner. This sea­son is his first as a full time de­fen­sive starter. And that, Hoff said, has led to the in­evitable ques­tion from col­lege re­cruiters.

“The thing I al­ways get asked from col­lege coaches is, ‘Is he truly a fast foot­ball player, or just a fast guy play­ing foot­ball.’” Hoff said. But with Eric, it’s def­i­nitely the other way around. It’s al­ways been foot­ball for him. Yes, he’s fast, and a lot of that is God-given tal­ent. But a lot of it is also Eric get­ting se­ri­ous about get­ting in the weight room, work­ing hard and go­ing hard on the track with (track) Coach (Frankie) Iver­son.”

Stokes ini­tially saw him­self at run­ning back, and still gets in a few snaps on of­fense here and there. But Hoff said he’s proud of the way the con­sen­sus three-star prospect has been will­ing to put aside his own wishes for the team.

“With the mea­sur­able he has, I think the sky is the limit,” he said. “He’s got a rare com­bi­na­tion of be­ing the fastest kids in the na­tion, not just the state, at his size. I’ve never been on the field as a coach in high school or col­lege with a kid that’s faster. But ob­vi­ously it’s go­ing to take more than that at the next level. And he’s shown him­self to be a very coach­able kid. He’s see­ing the re­sults of how fast he’s pro­gressed at cor­ner, and he just wants to be good. He’s in a re­ally good spot right now.”

Said Stokes: “I just trust my coaches. They kept telling me that de­fen­sive back was my ticket, even though I’d al­ways been play­ing run­ning back. Col­leges wanted me to play, and that would be my best shot, so I switched this year and I love it. All I need to work on now is tech­nique.”

He’s got at least two more weeks of reg­u­lar sea­son high school ball to do it. A play­off berth is likely, although when East­side straps it up against Salem on Fri­day, it’ll be for a chance to host a first round game and to give some of his beloved team­mates more op­por­tu­nity to get on the field — those things Stokes seems to want more than pad­ding on his stat sheet.

“I just want to see my team make it to state,” he said. “I re­ally want home field ad­van­tage. But I also want to make it so my boy Davin Grif­fin can play. He got hurt against Al­covy, but I would love to see him get back to play one more time. He’s my safety and he’s over top of me. Peo­ple stopped want­ing to throw to our side be­cause of us.”

The self­less­ness doesn’t sur­prise Hoff. It’s par for the course, he said, when it comes to Stokes and the rest of this se­nior class.

“We al­ways talk about play­mak­ers mak­ing plays, and there are plays Eric makes that other guys can’t,” Hoff said. “But it’s not just him. We’ve got a good se­nior class and cap­tains who are do­ing a great job. They push each other. They make each other bet­ter.”

Stokes said he wants to get bet­ter in the class­room too. He said he’ll hold off nar­row­ing his col­lege choices down un­til af­ter he takes his ACT test. Such a well-rounded work ethic has made such an im­pact on the team, that it leaves Hoff feel­ing a bit am­biva­lent about Stokes’ last sea­son.

“On one hand I wish I could have him for a cou­ple more years,” he said. “But then on the other hand, I’m so glad that we don’t have to be the ones to face him on the field.”

Gabriel Stovall | The Cov­ing­ton News

Eric Stokes (5) has a pair of in­ter­cep­tions and a half dozen pass breakups in the 2016 sea­son.

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