ATHENS — By now, many fans assumed, Rodrigo Blankenship and his goggles would be somewhere else, chased off the Georgia football team because of the lack of a scholarship, as well as the recruitment of seemingly every available well-footed person with college eligibility.
Assumed wrongly, it turned out. The start of the preseason is just around the corner, and Blankenship is still here and ready to be Georgia’s kicker in 2017.
Then again, so is David Marvin.
Marvin, as you may know by now, had quite the kicking career at Wofford, which caught the attention of Shane Beamer and Kirby Smart, who were at minimum seeking someone to compete to kick off and provide insurance in case Blankenship left. So Marvin, who chose Georgia over North Carolina and North Carolina State, arrives in August as a blueshirt (meaning he’s on scholarship but it doesn’t count toward the 2017 class).
That makes for quite an intriguing preseason kicking competition. Blankenship is coming off a year in which he made the SEC All-Freshman team, perfect on extra points and 14 for 18 on field goals. But his kickoffs weren’t as long and consistent as they could have been, and his longest field goal was only 49.
Enter Marvin, who has his own good track record, but plenty of uncertainty because of adjusting to playing a level up. And yes, Blankenship had an uneven G-Day, but all other signs were good this spring for him, with Smart defending him.
OK, so that’s the competition. But this is supposed to be about the importance of the position. And by the way … This is not purely a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
New starting center Lamont Gaillard was No. 12.
Wide receiver (it appears) Mecole Hardman came in at No. 11.
No. 10 was defensive lineman Trent Thompson.
No. 9 was underappreciated safety Dominick Sanders.
8. RODRIGO BLANKENSHIP or DAVID MARVIN
WHY WHOEVER WINS THE JOB IS IMPORTANT: Because in the average season, the kicker decides a couple games, perhaps more. On paper last year, kicking didn’t necessarily cost Georgia any games: For as much as William Ham and Blankenship struggled early on, Georgia started 3-0 and it wasn’t beating Ole Miss no matter what in Week 4. (That was the week Blankenship took over from Ham.) Later in the season at Kentucky, Blankenship kicked 4 field goals, including a 49-yarder and then a 25-yarder to win the game as time expired. There were no games where Georgia clearly lost last year because of field-goal kicking. There was at least one where it clearly won because of them. But when you look closer, the concerns about the dependability of the kicking game may have affected decision-making in the offense — like the end of the first half at South Carolina — and kickoffs were a concern. Georgia needs steadiness from its kicking game, and distance as well. It got the former from Blankenship after he won the job. It still needs the latter.
FACTOID: Blankenship’s kickoffs weren’t all that different when compared to some other past freshmen at Georgia. Blankenship averaged 62.2 yards, and was 36.4 percent on touchbacks. Marshall Morgan averaged 63.2 yards and had touchbacks on 36.8 percent as a freshman. Blair Walsh — who kicked off when the kickoff was at the 30-yard line, thus his touchbacks were much less — had 5 percent touchbacks, with an average distance of 60.0. Brandon Coutu, who like Walsh kicked from the 30-yard line, averaged 29 percent touchbacks, with an average distance of 60.5.
BEST CASE: Whoever is named the starter in the preseason kicks so well he holds onto it, and has a season like Blair Walsh and Marshall Morgan did as sophomores. Marvin’s track record at Wofford, and Blankenship’s pedigree as a high schooler, would indicate that they’re capable of doing that.
WORST CASE: It becomes a back-and-forth battle, with Marvin’s presence ending up shaking Blankenship’s confidence, but Marvin not able to make the adjustment to the higher level, where the crowds and the size of the oncoming rushers are both bigger. Georgia’s kicking game becomes a season-long struggle and costs the team several games.
FINAL WORD: The guess here is Blankenship begins the year as the kicker while Marvin begins as the kickoff specialist, sort of the reverse of last year, when Ham began as the kicker and Blankenship the kickoff specialist. (Given the way things turned out, that seems strange to realize now.)