ATLANTA (AP) — Ben Cleveland doesn’t back down from many challenges.
Being 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds has its advantages.
“Big Ben” didn’t quit when he was redshirted as a freshman in 2016.
He kept battling in practice when he didn’t win a starting job to open this season. He’s not backing down now when asked to handle an important starting job on Georgia’s offensive line in Monday night’s national championship game against Alabama and its strong defensive front .
Georgia has quickly learned to expect a tough approach from the imposing Cleveland.
“I just always say if you cut him, he wouldn’t bleed,” Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman said Saturday. “A muscle would pop out.”
Cleveland’s size and strength were not enough when he signed with the Bulldogs from the north Georgia mountains of Toccoa, Georgia last year. He had hunting on his mind.
“There were no deer or rabbit or squirrel out there so he wasn’t too interested, to be honest with you, and he’ll tell you the same thing,” Pittman said.
“What he found out was if he’ll put some time and his mind into this thing, he can be a fine football player.”
The opportunity came after Auburn exposed problems on the Georgia offensive line in a 40-17 win over the Bulldogs on Nov. 11. The line needed help, and Cleveland already was showing signs of maturity in practice.
“I just think he saw the opportunity and he took it,” said senior left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
Cleveland moved into the lineup against Kentucky the following week.
“My main thing was just never lose focus,” Cleveland said. “Just keep working.”
Improvement on the offensive line was a big reason Georgia (13-1) won its rematch with Auburn 28-7 in the Southeastern Conference championship game and outlasted No. 2 Oklahoma 54-48 in two overtimes in last week’s Rose Bowl semifinal.
“It’s funny to me with these young kids,” said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. “When are they going to be ready? You never know. Ben’s development late in the season, it took all the way to the end of his second season … before we felt like Big Ben gets going now. We put him in and it made sense.”
Only two months after he was playing a backup role, Cleveland will be in the spotlight in a challenging assignment against Alabama . Part of that challenge may include blocking Alabama nose tackle Da’Ron Payne, one of the stars in the Crimson Tide’s dominant 24-6 win over No. 1 Clemson in last week’s Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal.
“They’re definitely big up front, big, fast and physical,” Cleveland said Saturday of Alabama’s defensive line. “We’re just going to stick to our technique.”
Cleveland lines up beside true freshman right tackle Andrew Thomas.
Yes, that adds up to two freshmen offensive linemen and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm as starters on offense against Alabama’s vaunted defense — with the national championship on the line.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Pittman said. “It’s not going to be too big for them because they played in the Rose Bowl, they played in the SEC championship game. What happens will not be because the game is too big for them, it will be because Alabama has a really good D-line.”
NOTES: Following its media day session Saturday morning, Georgia bussed back to Athens for its practice. “We thought it would be best to be in our normal setting, which is to be in our meeting rooms, in our training room, in our recovery rooms, and on our practice field,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who also has tried to protect his players in other ways this week. Smart said permission was granted from College Football Playoff officials.
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25