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Jared Zirkel/DawgNation Photo Illustration
Jared Zirkel is set to be the next scholarship kicker at the University of Georgia.

Jared Zirkel: Georgia’s next kicker was born to be a Bulldog

There are easy ways to plant a foot, swing a big leg and drive into the Jared Zirkel story.

If all goes to plan, he will be the next kicker at Georgia. Zirkel will be the first scholarship kicker for the program since Rodrigo Blankenship in 2015.

It all sets up for him to follow the program’s first Lou Groza Award winner. Blankenship now stands as one of the best kickers in Bulldog history. He was also easily one of the most popular Bulldogs of the last decade.

No pressure, right?

But that’s the lot for kickers. Zirkel certainly has the leg for it. And then some.

His kicking coach Brent Grablachoff equates his leg strength on kickoffs to what one of his former proteges exhibited in college. It bodes well for Zirkel’s potential. Especially since Jason Sanders has nailed 41 field goals in two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. He was one of only two kickers to get drafted in 2018.

Grablachoff has told DawgNation that he has seen thousands of kickers come through his Kicking World camps over the past 13 years.

He said last March that Zirkel had the biggest kickoff leg in the country. He even added that Zirkel’s leg strength as a high school junior was on par with what Sanders displayed as a junior in college. That’s when he led the entire Football Bowl Sub-division in kickoff and touchback percentage.

The 59-yard field goal Zirkel boomed in a game as a junior also serves notice of his leg strength.

He’s also versed in pressure. Zirkel won a survivor competition last June in Athens. It netted that scholarship offer to kick for Georgia. The 6-foot-3 Texan readily accepted.

Those are good places to tee this up, but there’s a better angle sitting on a tee. There are actually two great launch points for this story.

Zirkel played high school ball for Tivy High in Kerrville. That’s the same school which produced 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

Jared Zirkel-Georgia recruiting-UGA recruiting
Jared Zirkel was already rocking the gear as a Bulldog legacy at a very early age. (Jared Zirkel/Contributed photo)

Being a Bulldog just runs in his family. The picture up top reflects the fact he was in Georgia gear while kicking the rails of his crib.

Trinette Zirkel, his mother, raised him to be a ‘Dawg out in Texas. She graduated from UGA in 1987. She references those as some of the Kevin Butler days. That’s the kicker’s mom coming out there.

“Our pastor here is a big Alabama fan,” Trinette Zirkel said. “When he saw that baby picture  as he read about Jared committing in our local paper he said ‘how exciting for you’ and ‘to think the brainwashing started so early’ and so that was funny. It wasn’t brainwashing. I don’t think so.”

When Zirkel was taking his visits, he knew UGA felt like home. It was just in his blood.

“It was meeting Jake [Camarda] and Rod [Blankenship] and [Scott] Fountain when he was still there and coach Smart, it seemed right,” Jared Zirkel said. “It was a good fit. The facilities were great. My mom went there. My grandparents went there. All of these reasons kind of came together and it was the first really big Division One school to offer I thought I would take them up on it as quick as a I could.”

“It was bunch of little things that you put all together and it kind of sealed the deal.”

Big-time college recruiting is different for kickers 

Scholarships and offers and recruiting are something else for the kicker tribe. Stars don’t equate here. If a high school leg could drill 65-yarders on the regular, it would be unusual. That probably still wouldn’t garner a 5-star rating from the recruiting services.

Elite kickers feel like they have to put up a literal search beacon at times to get noticed. The position just isn’t just recruited the same way as their peers.

There are a few scattered national brands for special teams prospects, but those are not mainstream. Grablachoff actually went the extra mile to write a letter of recommendation for Zirkel to Georgia in January of 2019.

The way scholarships work for specialists seems to fit an economics lecture. There is a lot of demand, but a scare scholarship supply. If a place like Georgia only needs to buy light bulbs every four years, there is no urgency to go check out this year’s models.

Zirkel finished the 2020 cycle as the nation’s No. 5 kicker on the 247Sports Composite. With that, the kicker ratings are by no means exact. It can be surmised that part of the reason why Zirkel remained so highly rated was because he was the guy Georgia accepted a commitment from. He must be good.

Big boy programs like Georgia don’t sign a kicker every cycle. When they do, it matters. The roll call for the nation’s top 10 kickers this year will go in order to Stanford, Ohio State, UCLA, Michigan State, Georgia, Louisville, Southern Cal, Missouri, Syracuse and Arizona. (Side note: Georgia went with Zirkel over a pair of top 10 kickers hailing from the state of Georgia this cycle, too.)

Blankenship was a U.S. Army All-American kicker. He still had to walk-on at Georgia and work for his scholarship. When the coaching staff at UGA turned over, he had to earn it again. When his scholarship was up, the Bulldogs set out to find their next kicker.

Scholarships are meant here to find “the guy” at kicker. “The guy” then holds onto it for four seasons.

“His goal was not just to be a Division One kicker,” his mother said. “But to get a scholarship. We told him to go play D-1 anywhere you want to go and we had been saving money for you for college. But he was like “No” to all of that. He said “I want to get a scholarship’ but those are just so rare. But that’s what he wanted.”

When the offer came, the family was huddled around the kitchen table. They were told to wait for a call.

“It was stunned silence when we got the news to begin with,” his mother said. “Because it was just mind-blowing. I did scream a little bit later. But I was just sitting there going ‘what did I hear?’ in my mind because it was amazing. It was just so amazing.”

She could not recall what was said. Especially after that “offer” part.

It was like those Charlie Brown classroom scenes from “Peanuts” cartoons. Once Georgia said he had an offer, it was simply ‘Wah wa wah wah wha’ after that. Just like when the teacher said anything to Charlie Brown.

“Yes, that was it,” she said. ” That was exactly it.”

It still blows her mind.

“Even talking to you now about all of this,” she said back in late August. “It doesn’t even seem real that he will be kicking at Georgia in that stadium next season. Every day it is just like I can believe it. It is so amazing.”

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3-star Texas kicker Jared Zirkel rates as the nation’s No. 5 overall kicker for 2020 on the 247Sports Composite ratings. (Jared Zirkel/Courtesy photo)

Jared Zirkel: The blueshirt wrinkle to his UGA start

Full scholarship rides are uncommon for high school seniors. There is an asterisk attached here with Zirkel, too.

He will show up in late May or early June. When he does, he will pay his own way for a few months. When the month of the fall term begins, he will go on scholarship. That’s the definition of a blueshirt.

The point of disclosure here isn’t to pore through the specifics of his financial aid. That’s a part of it, but it also shows how much he wanted to be a Bulldog.

It will no doubt endear him to fan base which hopes to fall in love with the next great Georgia kicker. Blankenship didn’t show up at Georgia on a full scholarship. He was a preferred walk-on with the expectation he would go on scholarship beginning with the 2016 season.

Zirkel will show up at Georgia in the same shoes.

“We were kind of trying to minimize the talk about the scholarship and when it was going to be and all that so it wasn’t as big of a deal,” Jared Zirkel said. “But yeah the plan is to report in June and go on scholarship starting in the fall from then on.”

Zirkel falls into that category because he didn’t tke an official visit to UGA. He did not receive an in-home visit from the staff out in Texas. That allows him to fall in line with the NCAA’s defining measures of a non-recruited athlete.

Those players can enroll and not count toward the 2020 signing class, but that fall 2020 scholarship will then count toward Georgia’s 2021 class. The young Texan sees that as a small matter of economics, too.

“Yeah, obviously being a Bulldog is going to be awesome,” he said. “For being a kicker and that position group it is not very typical to get the scholarship situation that I got very often. I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. It is not going to be the worst thing in the world to pay for a couple of summer classes and then to be there off scholarship for like, what, three months. That’s not the biggest issue.”

If Zirkel wins the job and performs as the kicker at Georgia, he’ll be on scholarship for his next 45 months in Athens.

Why was that necessary? Well, the NCAA mandate for scholarships counting toward any given class is 25. Georgia’s 2020 class count will carry the scholarships of 2019 graduate transfers Lawrence Cager and Eli Wolf.

It left the Bulldogs with a cap of 23 scholarships for the 2020 cycle. Give or take a back-count to the previous class with the 2019 class of early enrollees

Jared Zirkel: He had to pass the test to kick for Georgia 

While we are in the midst of watching this little narrative sail through the air, there’s a bubble of thought here to just start this whole thing over.

False start. Flag on the author. Those previous lines up seem like prologue. They are not at the center of how he earned the right to kick for Georgia.

The Zirkel to Georgia story will always be about a clutch moment. It took place with the Georgia staff watching.

Kickers get their own cold-blooded audition of sorts. Former special teams coach Scott Fountain invited Zirkel and a legion of other could-be Bulldogs to a select camp for specialists in June of 2019.

The stakes were known coming in. He better be clutch. Or all those baby pictures in Bulldog gear would just sail wide on a dream opportunity.

Zirkel wanted it badly, but he wasn’t clutch at the start on his field goals. Not with the Georgia evaluators watching.

Georgia had been looking at him for some time. Check out this February 2019 tweet.

When he took that visit, the feeling was Georgia basically ruined it for every other school. UGA had everything from the academics to the facilities to the program prestige to a bona fide team hero at kicker.

Trinette Zirkel pretty much told Georgia special teams analyst Greg Meyer those exact words.

But he still had to drill his kicks. If a kicker prospect can’t make kicks in front of Kirby and the staff, then he can’t make it to Georgia.

The future Georgia kicker had to compete with the best of the 2020 class to get on campus and compete for the job. This won’t be handed to him. There are a few talented preferred walk-ons already on campus who have been in the program for years now.

Pressure. That is just the life of a kicker.

“In high school games I had a couple of high pressure kicks you might say but nothing really too bad,” Zirkel said. “Then that camp at Georgia was a good representation of what it could be like with all that pressure. My kickoffs were obviously pretty good. I won that.”

He didn’t perform as well on his field goals as he could. Especially early on in that competition.

The Georgia staff and special teams analysts charted every kick. Zirkel missed a series of early kicks that he recalls. He made the first one, but then missed two or three in a row.

“I was then out of the competition for field goals and was pretty down about the whole thing,” he said. “But then they kind of did a thing where they brought back five or six of the guys who had been eliminated to add back. You had to make four in a row or something to get back into the competition.”

Zirkel made those. He finished in the top eight of the field goal evaluation contest.

“I think that showed that even if I missed a kick that I can come back and kick the ones that really count,” he said.

He made six or seven in a row starting at the 40-yard range. The competition incrementally moved the distances back farther and farther to 48 yards.

If he didn’t make those, he wouldn’t have likely been a part of the 2020 class. The video below provides an example of what that looked like.

How far can Jared Zirkel kick a football? 

He boomed a 59-yard field goal in a game during his junior year. That is the standard here for his leg strength. Check the clip of that boot below.

He feels good right now at about three-to-five yards north of that effort.

“I think the farthest I have had on video is a 65-yard field goal,” he said. “I have had a 70-yard try hit the crossbar.”

Zirkel said he wouldn’t feel comfortable in any game situation now at anything north of 65 yards. Makes sense. There’s not a kicker in high or college who should say that.

“It would be fun to try a 60 to 65-yarder in a game situation but I wouldn’t put too much faith in it,” he said.

With his build and frame, he’s right at the upper regions of what anyone can do. Grown men in the NFL top out around 65 yards in optimum-plus conditions like a mile above sea level in Denver.

Matt Prater set the NFL record at 64 yards in the thin Colorado air in 2013. The NCAA mark is at 67 yards, but that was back in 1988. The modern era is different. The longest boot without a tee and slimmed-down goal posts has been 65 yards by Martin Gramatica of Kansas State in 1998.

It is fleeting for him to try to kick it any father.

“You can only kick it so far now,” Zirkel said. “If you could just keep getting stronger and stronger and that would improve your distances there would a 100-yard field goal. But I’m pretty close to being the max distance. But I definitely have a lot of room to work on the accuracy and technique. I want to stay in shape and get stronger, but I think the distance is almost maxed out. When you get to somewhere around 70, then that’s the farthest anyone has ever able to kick it. Around 70 or so. Now I’ve just got to be able to keep working on the technique and accuracy.”

This clip below shows a kick he launched in June of 2019.

The next level will be technique refinement and repetition.

“The fun is not kicking it farther but what is to come next,” he said. “That’s kicking in a college stadium with 90,000 to 100,000 people yelling at you. That will be the fun and the motivation now for me at the next level. They will be screaming at me to miss or cheering me on.”

The next few months for Jared Zirkel

Zirkel now preps for when he will be in Athens. His focus is on his grades and his workouts.

“Georgia has sent me their workout program for the spring so I’ve been doing that every day and kicking every weekend or every other weekend,” he said. “So I’m focused but still trying to have fun while I can.”

There’s a page in the workout manual which is specific to his position.

“The kicker page is really nice,” he said. “I’ve sen some improvement already so that is good.”

He will be the only placekicker on scholarship during the regular season in Athens. Zirkel knows he will compete for the openings left by Blankenship on the team.

Jared Zirkel-Georgia recruiting-Georgia football
Jared Zirkel has spoken to Rodrigo Blankenship about what the life of a kicker will be like at Georgia. (Jared Zirkel/Twitter)

“So there is definitely going to be some hard shoes to fill,” he said. “Big expectations to live up to but Rodrigo was very mature in his game and ready to go onto the next level. So hopefully people will realize that I’ve got what it takes to be a kicker and if they give me a little time it should all work out.”

There is a symmetry here to what Blankenship went through. At least at the beginning of their careers.

“He didn’t know how long it was going to be before he was getting [a scholarship] when he came in,” Zirkel said. “I kind of have to prove myself this summer like he did during those first seasons where he was there. I can see that.”

He’s going in with the mentality that he can win a job. Or even two jobs.

“The first goal is obviously to lock down the kickoff and be the starting kickoff guy,” Zirkel said. “That’s kind of been my strong suit since my sophomore year in high school. I’ve done it every game. I feel like I definitely have the ability to do that pretty easily. I’m pretty confident in that one. I would say I’m a little less confident in earning the field goal spot. But I’m still going to spend all of my time focusing on that. It will take a little more technique and skill.”

Zirkel realized he had a college future the summer after his sophomore year in high school. He changed to a one-inch kickoff tee and began kicking field goals off the ground.

Those were the same parameters he will now face in the SEC.

“There’s not going to be any transition,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for two years now so everything should be exactly the same.”

Except for that kicking in front of 93,000 screaming fans part.

“Field goals are going to be the thing to work on this summer and hopefully I will earn the job by the time the football season and the summer comes,” he said.

Blankenship shared with Zirkel what life will be like in Athens. He told him it is great to be a Bulldog, but also stressed UGA was a place he could have a great life outside of football.

“He kind of wanted to make it apparent that just because you are the Georgia kicker and a part of this crazy popular football team you don’t have to act any different way than who you are,” Zirkel said. “You can be your own self. I think he did a good job of that. He said he had a great personal life there at Georgia with friends and his girlfriend. He made it seem like you could be a normal kid and not just have to be the football all-the-time guy.”

Zirkel has thought about wearign the No. 8 jersey. That was his high school number, but he’s shrewd enough to realize that will not fly. Skill guys covet those single digits. He might ask Blankenship for his number or go his own way with No. 88.

“We’re not sure yet,” Zirkel said.

Nickname quest: What will DawgNation call Jared Zirkel?

Kickers are usually just called the “kicker” or “the kicker” in a lot of places. Just maybe not at Georgia.

His kicking coaches call him “Zirk” but there might just be another nickname. The “ATM” line Grablachoff used might stick. He said Zirkel will be an Automatic Touchback Machine for the Bulldogs.

I put that matter to DawgNation readers on social media back in January. The responses received were colorful and humorous.

There were more than 70 responses at last count. That’s DawgNation. There’s something about this fan base and their kickers.

 

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