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Curtis Compton/AJC
Rodrigo Blankenship. He's clearly a homegrown fan favorite in Athens.

Homegrown Hot Rod: Why DawgNation loves Rodrigo Blankenship

EDITOR’S NOTE: This original Rodrigo Blankenship story continues a special series in partnership with Georgia Farm Bureau profiling homegrown talent from the state of Georgia.  To access the other HomeGrown Talent articles please visit the series hub on DawgNation.com. 

DawgNation loves them some Rodrigo Blankenship. He just might be the most popular player on the team.

A truly unscientific poll lends credence to that theory. It might be a shock to those who only consume their Georgia football gamedays over the airwaves, but the Sanford Stadium crowd adores all things “Hot Rod.”

The Sprayberry High (Marietta, Ga.) alum generates the loudest decibels every Saturday. That happens each home game when the starters are introduced. It dates back to at least the start of the 2018 season.

Does it catch him off-guard? Make him smile?

“Not really,” he said earlier this year. “I’m getting my last few warm-up kicks on the sideline and I’m trying to focus on that. Just kind of block everything else out.”

That love was still there for the pregame against Kentucky. That was the week after he missed a crucial kick in the second overtime against South Carolina.

It stands as Georgia’s only loss of the year. Blankenship didn’t lose many decibels off that pregame ovation.

When a player has done what Blankenship has for Georgia, it makes sense.

Georgia football-UGA-Rodrigo Blankenship
Blankenship got a big hug and slap on the helmet and back from Kirby Smart at the end of the South Carolina game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

Rodrigo Blankenship: The “Hot Rod” stat parade 

There’s a reverence around Dooley Field for the fifth-year Bulldog. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound graduate student has made 184 of his 184 extra points at Georgia.

He has drilled 65 of his 78 field-goal tries. That is good for a field goal percentage of 83.3 percent. That currently stands as the all-time best accuracy rate for a UGA kicker.

Those feats have generated 379 career points and the total sits fourth all-time in Georgia history behind Blair Walsh, Billy Bennett and Marshall Morgan.

“Hot Rod” also stands third in SEC history in career field goal percentage and 12th in career field goals.

Opponents have returned just six of his 46 kickoffs this fall. That includes 33 touchbacks.

The hits on his stat parade just keep coming:

  • He made four field goals back in 2016 against Kentucky.
  • Blankenship matched that against Missouri in 2017.
  • The Marietta native has made 53 and 55-yard field goals for the Bulldogs.
  • There was also his streak of 14 straight field goals last fall. It was part of a year in which he saw 82 of his 97 kickoffs land for touchbacks.

It strains the brain a bit to recall that kickoffs were a part of his game that didn’t come naturally. He had to work on those at UGA, much like he still grinds away at every part of his game.

He came to Georgia as a walk-on. Spurning a scholarship to Florida of all places to do so.

When he arrived, former coach Mark Richt told him he’d spend a year on campus without a scholarship and go on grant-in-aid after Morgan’s eligibility ran out in 2015. When Mark Richt left, that promise went with him.

Blankenship had to earn his offer to kick for the Bulldogs twice. He certainly has done that and then some.

Spurned Florida. Worked for what he has. Underdog. Clutch. Fan fave. The specs. The nickname. The walk-on tells the team he got put on scholarship after his clutch kick at Notre Dame. The Rose Bowl. #RespecttheSpecs

How many Bulldogs have generated their own hashtag? It seems there’s at least one slice of his story for al of us to appreciate.

“They all identify,” his former high school coach William Shackelford said. “They can relate to Rodrigo. He is not that big hulking monster athlete. He kind of has that nerdy aura about him that we all can relate to. He’s a kid that has obviously overachieved. I say that because while he does have unbelievable talent in his leg, he’s really been refining that. Training that. Developing it.”

“He’s not one of those guys who is blessed with unbelievable ability. He’s really developed his trade and his skill. He’s awkward to some, but just not in a typical way. He’s not an ego guy. He would rather be in the shadows out on a back practice field working rather than be front and center. Make no mistake, he’s got a little show horse about him but he’s got a lot more workhorse in him than show horse.”

Rodrigo Blankenship-Georgia football-UGA football
Rodrigo Blankenship has the highest accuracy among field goal kickers with a minimum number of field goal attempts in UGA history. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

The things you might not know about Rodrigo

Folks might miss this during games. But after almost every Blankenship kick, he’s slapping backs and hands and helmets. Loving on his guys. Almost always.

Did everyone see his first career tackle on Saturday against Kentucky? Not many know that he was a great athlete and soccer player during his high school days.

Blankenship was even a U.S. Army All-American in 2014. He was the high school All-American who took a preferred walk-on slot at Georgia. At least one other big-time offer in the SEC. (We readily admit offers for kickers aren’t offered and remain in relation in the same manner as other positions. But we’ve heard from a few sources he did indeed have an offer at one time from the Gators.)

He actually was a Florida fan during his youth, too.

“He wore Florida Gator gear all the time as a youngster,” Shackelford said. “But somewhere in the middle of his sophomore or junior year of high school, he started really loving the ‘Dawgs. He fell in love with the University of Georgia. I mean he flat fell in love with it.”

Shackelford has seen him grown through it all.

“I just have a lot of pride here,” he said. “The same way a father would watch his son. Or a mother would watch their kid. The same way. When you spend as much time as you do these kids, you grow to appreciate them like a son or a little brother. I take a lot of pride in his success.”

“I’ve seen him mature and grow from a little middle school kid barely kicking 15-yard field goals and growing into a young man and stepping into adulthood and seeing him work and mature and meet all the plateaus of life and goals. It is a lot of pride. He 100 percent has earned all of his success.”

“In my years of coaching, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a kid work harder than him. That’s the truth.”

That walk-on arc of his story really hits.

“I think what should make the alumni base and the student base at Georgia extremely proud is he was willing to pay his own money to play for Georgia after coach Smart arrived,” Shackelford said. “He didn’t have to. Coach Smart didn’t have to honor the same deal that coach Richt promised him. But he was still willing to stay on and take loans and go to school while he was leading the team in scoring.”

“If I were alumni of Georgia, I would be extremely proud to have a kid like that playing for us.”

When Smart arrived, he was not duty or honor-bound to honor that promise made by Richt. He had his own Tetris to sense the gaps and plug the holes from that returning roster after the 2015 season.

“Hot Rod” was challenged to get better in certain areas. Even after leading Georgia in scoring in Smart’s first season.

“Most kids are packing their dormitory up and heading off then,” Shackelford said. “Especially now with all this portal stuff. Rodrigo didn’t. To me, I think that is really really special and unique.”

Blankenship explained why. Being a Bulldog mattered to Blankenship. It still does.

“I couldn’t have asked for any better blessing than to be able to kick here for the University of Georgia,” he said last month. “I try to go to bed every night and remember that and be thankful for that every single night. It is a blessing to be here and I am in an incredible position right now.”

Rodrigo Blankenship-Georgia football-UGA football
Rodrigo Blankenship feels an extra special blessing about being able to dress out this year and wear that graduate patch as a UGA grad on his uniform this year. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

After the miss: DawgNation had hugs for “Hot Rod”

Kicking footballs in the SEC is a tough trade. By and large, kickers are going to miss kicks.

When they do, the quantity of those forms an impression of their overall ability. Blankenship will not be defined by his rare misses.

His Georgia legacy already has very high points in the Oklahoma game at the Rose Bowl during the 2017 season. That South Carolina misfire still says something about Blankenship. Quite a lot actually.

We learn a lot about Blankenship through one of those rare misses. That’s even though his career field goal percentage (83.3 percent) is already the best ever at UGA.

When he pushed that 42-yarder left, it represented just 1.28% of his field-goal tries for the program. It might reflect 100 percent of what has made him such a special player in Athens.

Blankenship was among the very first Bulldogs to enter the post-game interview area after that loss. He did not dodge those questions or act like he was made to be there.

He had his uncertainties about what went wrong and needed to go check the film. That’s what he knew that afternoon. Not a single excuse was to be heard.

He answered every question amicably and to the best of his ability. Over and over. The Grady College of Journalism graduate sure made it seem like he was weaving personal accountability into every answer.

“Leaders take bullets,” Shackelford said “Leaders are supposed to be out front. That doesn’t surprise me a bit. … Leaders just don’t show up when things are going good. Leaders are supposed to be out front when things are going bad. It doesn’t surprise me one bit. In fact, it makes me extremely proud that he did that.”

“It would be easy to hide in the locker room and sneak out. Or hide and get small and get lost. But Rodrigo is just not going to be that kind of guy. If he has to take a bullet, he’ll take a bullet. But then quite frankly when he is successful he is going to pat the other guys on the back and tell everybody else that is was all because of them, too.”

“Hot Rod” was one of the last Bulldogs to leave that post-game briefing. He knew those professionals had been there to report on the 65 other kicks and 184 extra points he had made as a Bulldog, too.

The love he received that day is uncommon to his trade. Especially after a miss and a blocked field goal for a kicker were part of the stew for an upset loss.

Yet what DawgNation said on social media that day defines their connection to Blankenship.

“I love our fans, man,” Blankenship said last month. “I love DawgNation to the bottom of my heart. I know that a lot of them [the fans] are trying to get my attention on the sidelines [during games] when I am warming up at the net and they are right over there. And as much as I want to turn around and take pictures with them, I have got to focus on the game. I just have to focus on my craft and doing everything that I can to help the team.”

“But I love our fans so much. Any chance I get to say thanks, I’ll do it.”

Georgia’s Homegrown Talent: The DawgNation series