Ben Cleveland came to Georgia as a heralded recruit known for his size, but well into his sophomore year, he had yet to receive any significant playing time, much less a start. Usually during games, Cleveland could be seen standing on the bench, waving a white towel to encourage fans to cheer.
For most of Georgia’s season, Cleveland had backed up true freshman Andrew Thomas at right tackle and dabbled at right guard. Then, four days after Georgia’s loss to Auburn, left tackle Isaiah Wynn hinted Cleveland may receive more playing time.
Sure enough, Cleveland’s face appeared on the Sanford Stadium video board when he was announced as Georgia’s starter at right guard during warmups before Georgia’s 42-13 win over Kentucky on Saturday.
“I was a little bit nervous, I'm not going to lie,” Cleveland said.
Head coach Kirby Smart said the decision to start Cleveland instead of season-long right guard Solomon Kindley, didn’t come as a result of Georgia’s loss to Auburn, a game in which the Bulldogs rushed for a season-low 46 yards.
“We went with the guy who practiced best,” Smart said.
Cleveland left high school at 6-foot-6 and over 300 pounds, but he said he “wasn’t physically developed enough to play at this level.”
His size gave him a natural advantage on the field, but it also limited his flexibility, which was an aspect of his body he worked on diligently while he redshirted as a freshman.
“I think redshirting is the best thing that's ever happened to me,” Cleveland said. “It gave me that one year to develop and practice my craft. I have zero complaints with it.”
Cleveland’s teammates knew he would develop into an effective offensive lineman once he adjusted to the speed of the college game. From the start of his career, Cleveland was considered one of, if not the strongest, person on the team. When he stands, he looks like solid muscle.
One day, the size and strength was bound to translate.
“He's walking around here looking like an ogre,” defensive back Aaron Davis said. “Ben is huge. When I have to hit him I definitely feel it. He's like a ‘Monstar’ out there.”
Prior to Saturday’s game, Georgia’s starter at right guard throughout the season had been Kindley, a 6-foot-4, 335-pound redshirt sophomore. Even though Smart said Cleveland had practiced with the first team offense the past two weeks, Kindley started against Auburn.
Before Georgia’s practice on Friday, offensive line coach Sam Pittman told Cleveland he would be starting for the first time.
Cleveland played every snap during Georgia’s first three drives of the game. Then Kindley entered on Georgia’s fourth possession, which came midway through the second quarter. He played until the final play of the first half. As the Bulldogs elected to take a knee, Cleveland was at right guard again.
Cleveland, who thought he played well, opened the second half as Georgia’s right guard. Again, he played for three possessions. Then Kindley played until backups were inserted in the final minutes. Cleveland said the rotation was designed by Pittman to keep the players fresh.
Moving forward, Smart said competition will continue at every position, not just right guard. He said left guard Kendall Baker was nearly replaced by Dyshon Sims this week, and that Cleveland could beat out Thomas at right tackle next week. As Georgia enters its final game of the regular season, the position is far from settled.
“We're going to continue to battle it out each and every week,” Cleveland said. “I don't expect nothing to change.”