On a roster boasting superstars like Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Roquan Smith, kicker Rodrigo Blankenship still found a way to stand out as Georgia made its way to the National Championship Game last season.
To start with, it probably was the beard and horned-rim glasses, his penchant for doing TV interviews with his helmet still on, and the vintage pink-and-gray soccer cleats he buys on eBay that made “Hot Rod” a fan favorite.
But, eventually, Blankenship’s big leg and talent for making clutch kicks, like his record-setting 55-yarder in the Rose Bowl, lifted him from lovable character to legitimate star.
If he stays the course — and doesn’t have one of those up-and-down careers that befall some talented kickers — Blankenship easily could be a contender for the Lou Groza Award, given annually since 1992 to college football’s top placekicker.
From what we’ve seen so far, Blankenship certainly has what it takes to rank among UGA’s all-time best. And that’s saying something, because Georgia has a pretty stellar kicking tradition, topped by the irrepressible Kevin Butler, probably the greatest college kicker ever, who inspired one of Larry Munson’s most famous calls when he kicked it “100,000 miles” for a winning field goal against Clemson.
Blankenship joining Butler on the list of greatest UGA kickers would be just about perfect in my book, since it’s Butler himself who guided Blankenship from walk-on to star over the past two seasons.
After too many years of watching the Dawgs go for those high directional kicks that fell short of the goal line, it was such a pleasure to watch Blankenship booming kickoff after kickoff through the back of the end zone this past season.
He also connected on 20 of 23 field goal attempts, and was a perfect 63-for-63 on extra points, earning a spot on ESPN’s All-Bowl team and nearly winning the national title with the 51-yarder he kicked in overtime against Bama (1 of 3 field goals he made in that game).
And, the locker room announcement by Kirby Smart after the big win over Notre Dame, telling the team that Blankenship had been awarded a scholarship, was one of my favorite moments of a magical season. (It was even sweeter considering the testy relationship Blankenship’s outspoken father had with the head coach.)
I’ve had a soft spot for Georgia placekickers ever since diminutive Bobby Etter picked up a bobbled snap and ran it in for a touchdown against the hated Gators in 1964.
There’ve been a lot of other fine Georgia kickers, including Rex Robinson of the 1980 national championship team, longtime NFL kicker John Kasay, Allan Leavitt, Kanon Parkman, Todd Peterson, Hap Hines, Brandon Coutu, Blair Walsh, Marshall Morgan, and another quirky kicker: guitar-playing Billy Bennett, who first rose to prominence in 2002 by beating Bama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, kicking a pressure-packed field goal with 38 seconds remaining on the clock.
Rather than go on to NFL stardom, Bennett wound up working in the music industry, but he left UGA as holder of a slew of entries in the record book, including most points scored in a season with 131 (yes, even ahead of Herschel Walker), and most field goals made in a game (6 against Georgia Tech in 2001). Bennett also has the record for most field goals in a season (31 in 2003, which is an NCAA and SEC record) and in a career (87, also an NCAA and SEC record).
As Rex Robinson once joked about Bennett: “Heck, he made more field goals than I attempted.”
Still, it’s Butler, one of my all-time favorite Georgia Bulldogs at any position, who occupies a level all his own in the Bulldog pantheon. Nearly a decade ago, I surveyed Blawg readers on UGA’s greatest ever kicker, and Butler was the runaway winner.
After a record-setting career in Athens that eventually made him the first kicker ever inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Butler went on to become the Chicago Bears’ best-ever placekicker. And, in the years since, he’s built a considerable following as a UGA broadcaster, thanks to his ever-present sense of humor and devotion to all things Georgia.
But, in addition to being a funny guy, he offers some of the best and most pointed commentary on UGA football, particularly special teams (or “specialty teams,” as he prefers to say).
Butler, whose son Drew was one of the nation’s top punters in his Bulldog days, knows kicking inside and out, and, after the Mark Richt years — when special teams seemed an afterthought — having Butler work as an unpaid student assistant the past two seasons while he finished up his degree in economics from UGA’s esteemed Terry College of Business was a big plus for Smart’s ascendant program.
Unfortunately, Butler now has graduated, and it appears his days working with UGA’s kickers are over. (Hey, Kevin, have you thought about maybe working on a master’s degree?)
Still, the lessons Butler taught Blankenship give the rising redshirt junior a great foundation, which bodes well for Georgia.
The thing about having a great placekicker is that, even if your offense bogs down, you usually can count on coming away from a drive into enemy territory with at least 3 points, and that’s where Hot Rod became such an integral part of Georgia’s 2017 success story — and, arguably, one of the season MVPs.
Despite having to earn his return as starting kicker in preseason drills last year (after being a freshman All-American), and not being on scholarship until the week of the Notre Dame game, he blossomed into one of the Dawgs’ most formidable weapons, thanks to both his kickoffs (67 of 94 resulted in touchbacks) and his accuracy and distance making field goals.
Stardom hasn’t made him any less colorful, either, with Blankenship releasing his debut rap single, “ATD” (inspired by Smart’s motto, Attack the Day) under the musical pseudonym Blanko in April.
As Sports Illustrated noted right before the National Championship Game in January, “Hot Rod stole the hearts of college football fans across the country in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, partly because he banged one in from 55 yards (a Rose Bowl record) and nailed a clutch kick in overtime, but also because he wears those goofy goggles. He just looks like an interesting character, and that’s because he is.”
An interesting character who can kick the heck out of a football!