OK everybody, time to analyze what will be an intense competition at a very visible, pressure-filled and point-producing position.
In the years we’ve been doing this series, you could always be sure the starter at three positions would make the list: Quarterback, tailback and kicker. You know we’ll be getting eventually to the first two. This spot is around when we’ve listed the kicker in previous years – it’s exactly where Marshall Morgan was last year – but if we knew how many games, if any, were going to come down to a last-second field goal, we’d put it higher.
This year is unique, too, as we go into the season not actually knowing who it will be. Two walk-ons competed in the spring, with Rodrigo Blankenship may have emerging with a slight edge over William Ham. And now a third walk-on, Mitchell Wasson from Lassiter High School, joins the fray.
The winner of this competition, by the way, might be rewarded with a scholarship, at least for the season. So if you think quarterback is intense …
Meanwhile, the kicking uncertainty will present another issue for Georgia coaches: The travel roster. The first game is a neutral non-conference game, so there shouldn’t be many limitations, and there will be even less the following week, at home against Nicholls State. But the next two games are road SEC games, which means a 70-man limit.
The likelihood is that both Brice Ramsey and Marshall Long will travel, unless Ramsey wins the punting job and Long is kept home. Otherwise, that’s two spots for punters, so does Georgia want to use up more than three valuable travel roster spots for kicking specialists? That makes it very unlikely that Blankenship, Ham and Wasson would all travel, and very possible only one does.
The point: If Georgia hasn’t settled on a kicker by Week 3, then Kirby Smart will be very annoyed.
Blankenship was brought to campus last year with the idea that he’d be the guy in 2016. Those plans seemed awry late in the season, when then-head coach Mark Richt went up to walk-on Patrick Beless to ask if he had any eligibility remaining. Beless said he didn’t, which Richt said left him “a little disappointed.” That didn’t sound like a coach in love with his options.
No wonder Smart, upon his arrival, quipped he was “scared to death” of the kicking situation. He backed off that as spring practice went on. But he and every Georgia fan will undoubtedly be very nervous the first time a critical field goal arrives this season.
OK, that was a long intro. Let’s get on to the list.
Reminder: This is not a ranking of Georgia’s best players, so to speak. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2016 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at certain positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
And No. 11, in the off chance you haven’t figured it out yet, is …
11. THE PLACE-KICKER TO BE NAMED LATER
(Rodrigo Blankenship, R-Fr.; or William Ham, Soph.; or Mitchell Wasson, Fr.)
WHY HE’S VITAL: Georgia had three games last year that arguably were decided by field goals: A three-point win over Missouri, the overtime win over Georgia Southern (a touchdown ended it, but Morgan’s field goal helped in regulation) and the six-point win over Georgia Tech. The Missouri win was the most due to kicking, with Morgan making a 34-yarrder with 1:44 left, after missing a 26-yarder four minutes before that. There have been other games where field goals made the difference. But Georgia hasn’t had many of those late, game-deciding kicking situations. Maybe it’s due.
QUOTABLE: “On field goals it will come down to William and Roderigo as I don’t see the consistency in Wasson’s leg yet. He does have some power but that is usually a trait with all young kickers but the consistency in college is what counts. Wasson also does not have the college experience yet with getting the ball off quicker and higher. He will also need to show he can effectively kick through college /professional goal posts since they are five feet closer than high school. At least Rod and William have been doing this for awhile.” – Marc Nolan, a respected kicking coach in Atlanta who has worked with several of the candidates.
BEST CASE: A clear winner emerges in the preseason and runs away with the job, and is able to work his way in slowly against North Carolina with some easy field goals and/or extra points. Morgan (who’s trying to make the Buffalo Bills) went 18-for-25 last year on field goals, while making all his extra points. Considering the inexperience factor, that seems a realistic “best case” for this year’s kicker. But Morgan’s junior season (16-for-21) isn’t too much to ask for either.
WORST CASE: Not only does a winner not emerge in the preseason, but the place-kicker becomes a revolving door and stays that way through the season, Smart and special teams coordinator Shane Beamer struggling to find the right guy. And it costs Georgia some games.
FINAL WORD: It’s always impossible to predict circumstances, but Georgia has a handful of games that set up as potentially close – including North Carolina, Missouri and Ole Miss in the first month alone. For that reason, and many others, place-kicker is almost as worth a close watch as that other competition. Almost.