Coach of UGA 5-star commit disappointed by evaluation

The high school coach of Ben Cleveland feels like it’s unfair that his 5-star prospect got a poor grade in a recent scouting evaluation by one of the major recruiting services.

Cleveland, who is committed to UGA and ranked as the state’s No. 1 overall prospect for next year, was given a “D” grade by Rivals for his performance in Stephens County High School’s 56-0 loss to two-time defending state champion Buford a couple of weeks ago.

OL Ben Cleveland (AJC/Michael Carvell)

OL Ben Cleveland (AJC/Michael Carvell)

Cleveland is rated as the nation’s No. 2 offensive tackle, but only played a few snaps at that position against Buford. He’s a full-time starter at defensive end for Stephens County.

“High school football is not about one player — it’s about a team,” Stephens County coach Frank Barden told the AJC. “And for Ben Cleveland with our football team, he helps us better at defensive end. He plays some both sides. He doesn’t start both ways because we try to avoid starting guys both ways on the interior line if we can.

“But for Ben Cleveland being 6-foot-7, 325 pounds and a kid that can run – he helps our football team win games at defensive end. Now is he going to play offensive line in the SEC? Yes. He’s going to play there in college. But for us and our football team, he helps us at defensive end this year. That doesn’t mean next year when he’s a senior he’s not back at full-time offensive line. But right now, our football team needs him more at defensive end.

“And I thought he played a heck of a ballgame that night against Buford. The people that graded him a ‘D,’ they got it wrong. It was kind of harsh. I understand he’s a 5-star kid, and Buford whipped our tail that night. But Ben Cleveland played OK that night. Ben Cleveland is a good football player. He’s an excellent football player.”

Cleveland had a rough start to his junior season. He tore a ligament in his thumb, which required him to undergo surgery and miss the first five games this season. While Cleveland was out, Stephens County developed some chemistry along the offensive line. Ultimately, Barden felt like his star player’s services were needed more on the other side of the ball.

It’s not uncommon for 5-star prospects to play positions of need for their high school team – and not their projected college position. For example, NFL All-Pro safety Eric Berry played quarterback at Creekside High School and saw only spot duty in the defensive backfield. Yet Berry was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 cornerback by Rivals in 2007.

“What (UGA offensive line coach) Will Friend needs from Ben Cleveland is for Ben just to play hard,” Barden said. “Will Friend could care less where Ben Cleveland plays in high school. Because Will Friend will play Ben Cleveland where he needs him in college. It may be center, it may guard, or it may be tackle.

“But Will will teach him what he needs to know about being an offensive lineman at the University of Georgia. Ben is a great high school football player, and he’s a great kid. And for someone to come up here and say ‘Well, he’s not all that’ … that’s disappointing.”

When Stephens County plays at West Lauren in Friday’s second round of the Class AAA playoffs, Cleveland will get the start on the offensive line, along with his regular position on defense.

“It’s just hard in August, September, and early October to play a kid that size in the interior line both ways full time,” Barden said. “Plus, we just got him back after he had been out for five weeks.

“Ben’s attitude about everything has been great. He’s a great kid. And it’s hard to understand that he’s a kid at 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds. He just turned 16 years old this August. He really could’ve been held back a school grade.

“He’s just a great kid. He’s a hard worker. He enjoys playing high school football. And he has a great, great future ahead of him. He has handled playing defensive end very well. He knows it’s going to help him as a football player, and also give our team the best chance to win.

“As far as any impact player, he impacts the game more at defensive end than he would at offensive line. His attitude about everything has been great. He’s going to be a good player at the next level, and the level after that.

RELATED: Rusty Mansell, recruiting analyst for 247sports, turned some heads by projecting 5-star offensive lineman Chuma Edoga to UGA on Monday night. Edoga, who is committed to USC, took an official visit with the Bulldogs this past weekend.

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