Mountain Man: A conversation with Georgia’s Ben Cleveland

ATHENS — Big Ben Cleveland.

Just state those three names in a row around a fan or anybody associated with Georgia, and they’ll generally produce the same reaction. That is, a smile, maybe a chuckle and probably some sort of comment or another about his size.

That was the case before Cleveland was actually playing much for the Bulldogs. Now that he’s a starter on Georgia’s offensive line, the interest and intrigue around him is even greater.

Ben Cleveland poses with AJC photographer Curtis Compton after his Super 11 photo shoot prior to his senior season at Stephens County High School in 2015. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

That’s because Cleveland, at 6-foot-6, 340 pounds, is a mountain of a man. He lived up on one, too. He came down to Athens and UGA from the steep grades the encompass Toccoa, and he was lugging a knapsack full of high expectations as a 5-star recruit.

After a year-long acclimation period as a redshirt, followed by a half-season of apprentice duty, Cleveland finally wound up where everybody thought he would be, starting on the Bulldogs’ offensive line.

Only there’s a wrinkle to that, too. His physical stature suggested Cleveland would be a prototype tackle. Instead it was inside at guard that he finally broke through. As a result, he and 6-7, 345-pound tackle Isaiah Wilson combine to give the Bulldogs the Great Wall of Athens on the right side of the line.

Wearing camo crocs with his UGA issued gym shorts on Friday, Cleveland made what for him has been a very rare media appearance. Other than team availability during last year’s postseason run, it was the first time he has come up to the second floor of the Butts-Mehre football complex for post-practice interviews.

He did not disappoint. Here is, the best of Ben Cleveland, Volume 1:

Q: How different is it going into this season as a starter?

Cleveland: I really don’t think there’s much of a difference. There’s still great competition like there was last year. It’s about trying to get on the bus. Iverybody’s just trying to become a better person, on the field, off the field, every day. It’s very similar to last year.

Q: What do you think ultimately landed you a starting spot?

Cleveland: I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. I felt like I did everything I could to get on the field earlier in the year. Then whenever they gave me a chance I just wanted to make the most of it.

Q: What about playing guard rather than tackle?

Cleveland: You know, I really don’t even think about it honestly. I’m out there to do what they need me to do to make my team the best that it can be. So wherever they want to put me that’s where I’ll play.

Q: How can you and Isaiah Wilson take advantage of your tremendous size on the right side of the line?

Cleveland: Obviously we’re both big and strong. That right side can be something special. We try to work on communication with each other, make sure one person knows what’s going on just as good as the next. As long we continue to work together we can be unstoppable in the front five.”

Q: Are you better than you were last year?

Cleveland: Absolutely, our offseason conditioning program and all that, you have no option but to get better. We’ve been working all winter, all summer, so I absolutely thing every guy on the team has improved from where they were last spring and last fall.

Q: What areas are you seeking to improve on?

Cleveland: Definitely play with my hands in pass protection better. That’s something I went out and worked on every single day. I feel like it’s paying off now.

Q: On being 17 when he arrived at UGA

Cleveland: It made you grow up fast, but that was something I was kind of expecting. I knew what was in store for me, so I just wanted to make the most of it.

Q: On manning “punt shield” on Georgia’s punt team?

Cleveland: I’m kind of Jonesing for that first tackle. I just hope when the time comes I have to make a tackle in the open field on somebody that weighs 200 pounds less than me I hope I don’t get embarrassed.

Q: What has been you observations on quarterback Jake Fromm?

Cleveland: He’s got more confidence that anybody I’ve ever seen at the quarterback position. He’s very vocal, knows all the checks, knows what needs to be done. Our whole offensive line has faith that he’ll make the right calls and get us where we need to be. So, you know, he knows he controls the offense and he can get us to do what he needs us to do. He makes the call and we make him right. That’s what we put out there.

Q: What’s is it like to be such a recognizable figure?

Cleveland: Growing up in a small town, I never looked at myself as anything special. You know, I love the game of football. Growing up thatj’s what I wanted to do. So I’ve just kind of taken it in stride and tried to do everything I can. I don’t look at myself any different than any of the guys on this team. I’m here to do what I can do to make this university the best.

Q: Will he ever cut that ever-present beard?

Cleveland: It’s been growing a little while. … I actually trimmed it a month ago for a wedding. I took it down to about nothing and then it got back to here. I feel like I look real weird with a baby face now, so I think I’ll just let this stay. I’ve had it since the 10th or 11th grade, so I don’t even think about it anymore.

What’s the story on the hunting/fishing triumvirate of Charlie Woerner, Fromm and him?

Cleveland: That’s one of the things that brings us all together. Obviously we have football, being on the team. We spend a lot of time here, but during deer season, duck season, summer, any chance we get, we go. There’s a lot of weekends we come back here and go straight to somewhere and duck hunt on Sunday mornings. We’ll come back for workouts on Sunday afternoons. It’s good to get away because we all grew up doing that. So, I mean, it’s therapeutic to us. It’s just one of those things where you go do it and you forget about everything else. You can’t get that anywhere else.

Where do they hunt and fish?

Cleveland: We’ve got hunting land 30 minutes from here. We’ve got friends that have ponds 20 minutes from here. So, I mean, we’re all relatively close where we can leave in the afternoon and be back in the morning.

Q: Did y’all give Fromm a hard time for getting a lure stuck in his leg?

Cleveland: No. It was one of those things that happens to everybody. I think I’ve had five or six of them shoved in me. I’m not Jake Fromm so it doesn’t end up on the Internet.

Q: Do you ever think about how close y’all came to winning it all last year?

Cleveland: Not really. It’s one of those things where we know what all we did to prepare to get to where we were last year. We know what we did wrong, so we can’t do nothing but try to fix it. …

Q: Does not being a surprise team make it harder this year?

Cleveland: In this program, Coach Smart puts a bit emphasis on not letting the outside stuff affect us. I think the guys on this team do a great job of not paying attention to what people are saying and talking about. That really helps us because it keeps our minds focused and keeps us grounded and keeps us focused on that we’ve got to do.

Q: On his ascension along with Georgia last year …

Cleveland: It was great last year, honestly, especially being so young and then starting right after the first Auburn game. My three biggest games of my career were my first three starts. So, you know, it happened really fast. But we all know we can get back this year, and I think that’s something we go out there with the mindset to do every day.

Q: What has been the secret to the transformation of the O-line?

Cleveland: Coach Pittman and all of our guys do an unbelievable job of recruiting and that’s what you’re seeing. I don’t know what we’re ranked in recruiting classes, but I know we’re uop there. Our coaches know out to get out there and network. And obviously, who wouldn’t want to come here with this new indoor facility and all that. So, I think recruits see that we have something special here and they want to come be a part of it.

Q: How confident are you that you’ll start this year?

Cleveland: We honestly don’t know what the lineup’s going to be yet, so everybody’s working just as hard on Day 20 in camp as we were on Day 1. I don’t expect that to change throughout the season.

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