ATHENS — Lost in Rodrigo Blankenship’s incredible performance at South Carolina last Saturday was a major development for Georgia’s star place-kicker.
He changed shoes.
Now that might not seem like a big deal to some. But for Blankenship, a meticulous technician and creature of habit, any deviation from his tried and true methods is a relative seismic shift.
So the story behind the story of Hot Rod’s white-hot start to the 2018 season is he changed from the famous pink kicking cleats he has worn for the last two seasons to a new silver pair he donned against South Carolina in Columbia last Saturday.
Blankenship made his pink cleats famous last year on the way to setting the Georgia record for touchbacks with 67 and making 87.5 percent of his field goal attempts. (John Kelley/UGA)
All due respect to Nike and the funky pink shoes that have served him so well, but clearly the trick to Blankenship’s great kicking is in the man and not in the equipment. Rocking the new silver kicks, Blankenship managed to stay perfect for the season. He was 2-for-2 on two long field goals and 7-for-7 on touchbacks, making him 3-for-3 and 15-for-15, respectively, for the season.
Blankenship confirmed this stunning development just minutes after learning he’d been tabbed the SEC’s Special Teams Player of the Week earlier this week.
“I’m rotating,” Blankenship said of his weekly shoe choices. “Depending on whether we’re home or away, I might be wearing the ‘Pink Slippers’ or the ‘Silver Bullets.’ Those are the ones I wore Saturday.”
That’s right, Blankenship has nicknames for his cleats. Asked where he came up with the name for the latest pair, Blankenship answered with his trademark monotone, deadpan.
“Well, they’re silver and it just sounded catchy,” he said with a mischievous.
So there you go.
Truly though, such a change might be yet more evidence of Blankenship’s growth and development, which has been continuous since he showed up as a walkon for the Bulldogs in 2015. After a redshirt year, he took over as Georgia’s place-kicker in the fourth game of the 2016 season and hasn’t turned loose of it since.
In the meantime, Blankenship has gone from being beloved for his “Rec Specs” and quirkiness to a certifiable scoring “weapon,” as coach Kirby Smart referred to him this season.
“He’s been incredible, to be honest with you,” Smart said as the Bulldogs were preparing for Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee State. “I think our special teams staff does a tremendous job of making sure he’s fresh and he does a tremendous job of taking care of his body. It’s shown in the last two games with the power and drive consistently. Most guys wear out as the game goes on, maybe have to kick another kicker, or maybe don’t kick him at all. He just continues to pound the ball and does a great job doing it. He’s a leader on our team, and he’s awesome to work with.
“I mean, he’s become a weapon, and we have to use him as such.”
Georgia is doing that without hesitation. Dating back to the last year’s postseason — when Blankenship converted a 55-yarder in the Rose Bowl and a 51-yarder in the National Championship — Smart summons Blankenship to the field without delay. Blankenship sprinted into the South Carolina game with six seconds on the clock in the second quarter and drilled a 44-yard field goal that split the uprights as time expired. He had a 45-yarder earlier that sliced right to get inside the left upright but was so high and long it appeared it would’ve been good from 60.
Blankenship has been good from such a distance in practice, so don’t be surprised if Smart gives Blankenship a shot from that far before the season is over. That could even happen tomorrow when the Blue Raiders come to town. Winds are expected to reach the mid- to upper-teens in miles per hour thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Florence reaching Northeast Georgia around the noon kickoff. Depending on whether they’re blowing with the Bulldogs, Blankenship could get a chance to best Kevin Butler’s school record of 60.5 yards.
If he does, he’ll likely be donning the Pink Slippers again. That appears to now be Blankenship’s home shoe.
If you’ve ever heard Marriettan talk about his shoes, you know it’s something he takes seriously. Blankenship explained last year how he ended up wearing the pink ones. In a nutshell, they are a series developed by Nike for the 2010 World Cup and the pink simply was closer to the Georgia red than the lime green, neon blue and leopard spot options that were available.
Unfortunately, Blankenship’s interview this week was cut short before he could explain how and where he found the Silver Bullets. But he has revealed before that he actually enjoys “the chase” of finding just the right shoe. It’s a kicker thing, apparently.
So be sure to pay close attention to his shoe choice when Blankenship attempts his first kick on Saturday against Middle Tennessee State. Whatever it is, you can be sure it wasn’t lightly considered.
In the meantime, expect the Bulldogs to continue to win the special teams battle against whomever they happen to face each week. Blankenship assures Georgia of a push at the very least in that department.
In addition to his SEC honor, Blankenship also this week became one of 11 players in the nation to be named to the AFCA Good Works Team for his off-field charitable endeavors and academic achievement. If Blankenship continues to kick like he has this season and last, there is no reason to think he won’t add All-America honors to his résumé. He’s started the season on the watchlist for the Lou Groza Award, which annually goes to the nation’s top place-kicker.
About such honors Blankenship insists he’s not thinking.
“I just hope I can continue to perform at a high level for my team,” Blankenship said humbly.
Whatever he does, one can be sure that Hot Rod will be doing it with flair.