We continue our exhaustive examination of UGA football players embarking on their NFL futures by breaking down everyone’s favorite gargantuan, bearded squirrel fricassee enthusiast, Ben Cleveland.
While the legend of Big Ben is only now becoming national news, Bulldog fans have known for some time that he was unlike any other prospect. Cleveland was a top priority for Mark Richt’s staff when he was a freshman at Stephens County. Even when he was little, he was already big.
2016 OL Ben Cleveland at 6-6, 330 lbs today. Still 14 yrs old,great kid with big offers early. Will have 40+ in 3 yrs pic.twitter.com/iKZ1ipjjIQ
— Rusty Mansell (@Mansell247) July 9, 2013
When Kirby Smart took over he likewise made Cleveland a top priority, and the big man decided to stick with the Red and Black, signing as part of the class of 2016.
Cleveland wasn’t an immediate impact player in Athens despite being among the most anticipated recruits in Smart’s first Signing Class. He redshirted in 2016, working on the scout team and learning the complexities of collegiate offensive line play. Some fans foolishly and prematurely labeled Cleveland a bust, an odd designation for a guy who wasn’t even 18 years old at the time.
Big Ben put those discussions to rest with a breakout 2017. After earning increasing playing time he took over starting duties at right guard for the final five games of the season, including the SEC championship game, Rose Bowl and….whatever the other game was at the end of the year. The Bulldog rushing attack was a completely different animal with Cleveland road grading up front.
2018 saw Cleveland enter the season as the clear starter at right guard, but a fractured fibula suffered in the Missouri game forced him to miss six weeks, and put a severe crimp in the Dawgs’ production. 2019 saw Cleveland come back to the field, again playing a big part in the rotation, but starting only seven games. He was also academically ineligible to participate in the Sugar Bowl against Baylor.
The massive Toccoan came into 2020 with something to prove, and he did it. Cleveland started all nine regular season games. Not only that, he played every offensive snap in contests against both Alabama and Florida. Big Ben ended the year earning first team All-SEC honors from the AP and a second team All-American nod from The Athletic.
It was the kind of show of consistency and dependability that he needed. Ben Cleveland leaves Athens in some ways as a larger than life folk hero. A 6’6, 350 pound behemoth of a man with a Grizzly Adams beard and a penchant for hunting linebackers and big bucks.
Fun fact, Big Ben just jumped out the stand and broke the deer’s back when he landed on it. (Also nice hat). https://t.co/SYM1BVmoAa
— Dawg Sports (@dawgsports) January 8, 2021
But like all folk heroes are required to, he has some weaknesses. Obviously the durability concerns from his time in Athens will likely follow him to the League. And while he tested off the charts, running a 4.85 forty last month, there are times when he looks a little stiff moving up to the second level. He also doesn’t have the quick feet you’d want in an NFL right tackle, much less on the left side. And he’s never played a down of center during his time in the Classic City.
All of that means Cleveland’s going to need a team to fall in love with his ability to move other large men out of the way in the guard spot. Because he does not have the type of versatility across positions that the NFL with its limited rosters covets.
But I could see Big Ben going to a team that needs to beef up its run game (I anticipate somewhere between the mid-second round and late third), landing a starting spot, and holding onto that job for the foreseeable future. I could then see him being one of those guys who makes as much money as he thinks he needs, then moving onto a professional wrestling career, opening a construction company, or hosting a wild game cooking show on Destination America. Until later…