ATHENS — A lot of Georgia players helped themselves during spring practice this year.
It looks like Pat Allen and Solomon Kindley pretty much nailed down starting spots at guard on the offensive line. From what I saw, Jonathan Ledbetter looked almost unblockable on the defensive line. Though he has played a lot in his career already, junior wideout Terry Godwin appears to have developed into both the leader and explosive playmaker the Bulldogs have always envisioned.
But you know who may have helped himself more than anybody during the Bulldogs’ spring drills this year?
Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.
In fact, Blankenship was so dominant this spring that you’ll see him actually kick for both the Red and the Black teams in the G-Day Game on Saturday at Sanford Stadium. That’s because the walk-on kicker from Marietta has pretty eliminated all his competition.
Since the kicking competition began in earnest last fall, his fellow walkons have quit the team, William Ham in January and Mitchell Wasson two weeks ago. I asked coach Kirby Smart this week if Blankenship was getting any competition anymore.
“Uh, yeah, we’ve got somebody out there; Stumpe’s out there kicking with him,” Smart said, referring to junior walk-on Tanner Stumpe of Albany. “But, to be honest with you, we’re going to let Rodrigo kick sometimes with the 1s and the 2s to give him more reps. … If we’re going to kick a game-winning field goal on a 2-minute drive and it’s a 52-yarder, I’m going to put Rodrigo out there whether it’s the 1 or 2s. The other kid has a good leg and has been consistent, he just doesn’t kick it as far.
“If it’s a situation where I think it gives that team the best bet to have Rodrigo, I’m putting Rodrigo out there.”
That’s certainly good news for Blankenship, and likewise for the Bulldogs, too. As many Georgia fans are acutely aware, Blankenship’s father, Ken Blankenship, has been outspoken in his discontent about his son’s non-scholarship status, especially after Rodrigo won the starting job last season and kicked field goals at 77.8 percent clip to earn freshman All-SEC honors.
Going back to his decision to come to Georgia as a preferred walk-on in 2015, Blankenship was promised a scholarship by former coach Mark Richt — if he earned the job as the Bulldogs’ starting kicker. Blankenship’s folks were further incensed earlier this year when Smart went out in January and offered aid to David Marvin, a kicker from Wofford College who will be joining the team in August as a graduate transfer as something called a “blueshirt.” Bottom line, Marvin’s going to get his school paid for and Blankenship still isn’t.
That competition, Blankenship will have to deal with later. But thus far, the kicker that Bulldogs fans have come embrace as “Mr. Rec Specs” and “Hot Rod” has handled all comers with great aplomb. And if he continues to do so, he’ll eventually earn that scholarship most everybody agrees he deserves.
Kevin Butler, the College Football Hall of Fame kicker who continues to serve the Bulldogs as a student assistant kicking coach, thinks so. He loves what he has been seeing from the redshirt sophomore.
“You know, I think Rod is doing exactly what he needs to do,” Butler told me earlier this spring. “He has put himself in a great position to earn that (scholarship), just as Kirby has told him. Everybody wants it now, but David Marvin coming in here has nothing to do with whether (Rodrigo) gets a scholarship or not. I think they’re 2 different types of scholarships. It’s a 1-year deal.”
The timing of Butler being at Georgia as an unpaid student assistant has worked out great for Blankenship. Butler was a 2-time All-American at Georgia, a 4-time All-SEC kicker and remains the school’s all-time leading scorer. Not only has his presence benefited all the Bulldogs kickers as a coach, but Butler also has been able to serve as a mentor to Blankenship.
One of Butler’s main pieces of advice has been to eliminate all the “noise” in his life and quit worrying about scholarships and internal politics. Focus only on being the best kicker he can possibly be, he has told his protege.
“I just think college is about growing up and college is about parents being supportive,” Butler said. “I don’t think there’s any place to voice opinions.”
And Blankenship has flourished under those marching orders. Blankenship is still listed at 6-foot-1, 191 pounds on Georgia’s roster, but he looks even bigger and stronger than he was a year ago, which would make sense. And he has been working hard on his kickoffs and his long-range kicks, the areas where he displayed some deficiency.
So he’s been getting better, and Blankenship will be kicking for both sides when the Red & Black take the field for G-Day. But regardless of how well he does, he’ll still have to compete for his job again when Marvin shows up for preseason camp.
And that’s a good thing, Butler said.
“The Bulldog Nation and Rodrigo should respect those kinds of decisions because they make them better,” Butler said. “I can already see that Rod’s better just from where he stands now and knowing what’s expected of him. I think he’s perfectly happy with it. I think he’s looking forward to the competition and we’ll see him out there kicking this year.”
We certainly will see a lot of Blankenship today.