ATHENS – Rodrigo Blankenship wasn’t a typical walk-on kicker. He made the U.S. Army All-American game. One outlet ranked him as the nation’s seventh-best prospect in the 2015 class. He passed on scholarships to smaller schools, including Colorado State, in order to walk on at Georgia, which hoped Blankenship could sit a year, win the place-kicker job, and go on scholarship.
Three games into the season, Blankenship has yet to try a field goal or an extra point. He lost out to another walk-on, William Ham, who is struggling immensely, going 2-for-5.
“They’ve got competition between each other, and that will continue,” head coach Kirby Smart said Monday, somewhat wearily.
This after an eight-year run of scholarship kickers at Georgia: Blair Walsh from 2008-11 and Marshall Morgan from 2012-15. But getting a good kicker in college football isn’t as easy as just signing somewhat to a scholarship.
“It’s probably the toughest position to evaluate,” said Barton Simmons, a recruiting analyst at 247Sports. “So that’s why a lot of programs go the walk-on route.”
There are a few reasons for that. For one, college football staffs are not exactly populated by former place-kickers, thus they don’t have extensive contacts or institutional knowledge when it comes to recruiting them. For another, kicking is so mental, and the adjustment to college so unpredictable, that coaches worry about giving a scholarship to a kicker and then, essentially, being stuck with him.
“You can recruit a five-star kicker, but the walk-on may have a better demeanor, a better mental makeup, and there’s no way to really get to the meat of that in the evaluation process,” Simmons said. “The tape to evaluate and just what there is to evaluate is much less robust than any other position. And I think there’s fewer of them out there. There’s just a lot of factors that make it a difficult evaluation to make.”
This past signing day, Smart said that “in my history, I found that you can find more quality kickers through the walk-on route than you can quality punters.” That’s why they signed Marshall Long, who had committed to Virginia Tech, where Shane Beamer was before coming to Georgia as special-teams coordinator.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a policy against signing kickers to scholarships, as Smart clarified this week. The reason they didn’t sign any this year was that “when I got here this year every good kicker that I knew from recruiting was going to sign somewhere.” (Or, since Long had been committed to another school, Smart and Beamer just weren’t able to also flip a place-kicker.)
“We’re going to always go in and recruit kickers. It’s a matter of whether we’re going to commit a scholarship to it or not,” Smart said. “That is not a policy by any means. I firmly believe that you’ve got to have a great kicker.”
Smart also recruited another walk-on this season, Mitchell Wasson, who had committed to Alabama as a preferred walk-on. Wasson, who’s from Marietta, has not kicked well enough in practice to push Ham or Blankenship.
The walk-on route has worked for Georgia in the recent past. Those walk-ons also had good starts to their careers:
In 2004, Brandon Coutu made the first field goal of his career, and it was a pressure-filled one: 44 yards, in the final minutes of a Georgia Tech game that the Bulldogs only led by three before the kick. Coutu made one of his next two, then won the job the next year and went 23-for-29, and for his career was perfect under 30 yards and only missed two field goals from under 40 yards.
In 2000, Billy Bennett went 13-for-14 as a freshman, though he did miss two extra points. He ended up a four-year starter, earning a scholarship along the way, setting the NCAA record for career points, and finishing with a total of nine NCAA records, seven SEC records, and 13 school records.
It hasn’t happened that way yet for Ham. Making it more surprising is Georgia would seem to have the perfect coaching set-up for the kickers: A full-time, dedicated special-teams coordinator in Beamer, and the most famous kicker in school history, Kevin Butler, working with the kickers every day in practice as a student assistant.
Maybe Smart and company will try to bring in a scholarship kicker this offseason. Maybe they’ll also bring in more walk-ons. Or maybe Ham or Blankenship will turn it around, and the start to this season will just be a blip.
Alabama also had plenty of kicking struggles while Smart was there. It’s been willing to recruit kickers on scholarship, and last year had planned to give one to a recruit, Eddy Pineiro. But the Miami native flipped to Florida, where he’s 5-for-7 this year, including 54-yarder.
“That’s a guy that’s going to be a difference maker,” Smart said. “Certainly, certainly going to be able to scholarship that guy. We’ll continue to look in that mode.”