ATHENS — Rodrigo Blankenship has remade himself for the 2018 season.
The beard he sported all last year is gone and, at least for one post-practice interview, the “rec specs” that he has made so famous were replaced with regular wire-rim glasses.
Oh, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“I figured it was a more professional look,” Blankenship said after Georgia’s practice Thursday night at the Butts-Mehre football complex. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that if I’m going to go into broadcasting, I’m probably need to clean it up a little bit. So that’s what I’m going for.”
Blankenship cleans up pretty well, actually. But don’t read too much into it. There’s a lot about him that hasn’t changed. He plans to be the same quirky-yet-dependable kicker he was for the Bulldogs last year.
Thursday represented Blankenship’s first interview with beat reporters since Georgia’s national championship game against Alabama in January. You may recall that Blankenship did everything he could to put the Bulldogs in position to win that game. He made all his extra points (he’s never missed one), and was good on all three of his field goal tries. The last one — a 51-yarder in overtime — would’ve been the game-winner had the Crimson Tide not scored on 2nd-and-26.
It was an inglorious end to an otherwise glorious season for Blankenship individually. He helped the Bulldogs advance to the College Football Playoff finals by making a Rose Bowl record 55-yard field against Oklahoma in the semifinals. For the year, he was 20-of-23 on field goals and remained perfect for his career by making all 63 of his PATs (he’s now 89-of-89).
And for the first time in his college career, Blankenship enters a season sweating out neither his tuition nor his position on the depth chart. The former walkon was placed on scholarship the week of the Notre Dame game last September and UGA has assured him that he will remain on aid through the 2018-19 academic year.
Nevertheless, Blankenship, now a redshirt junior, is approaching this season no differently than he has the last three.
“I’m trying to go into it with the tenacity and the drive that I want to be the best that I can be,” Blankenship said. “I’m trying to go in and attack every single day and stay hungry. I try to approach every day like I still have something to prove, because I do.”
Blankenship doesn’t have to prove anything more to his teammates. After his performance last season — and throughout his career, really — they have all the confidence in the world in him.
And why not? Blankenship just keeps coming through.
In 2016, he made all four field goals, including the game-winner as time expired, against Kentucky. Last year, he knocked through the game-winner late in the fourth quarter of a 20-19 win over Notre Dame. He made every kick during Georgia’s postseason run, which included seven field goals.
“You saw the national championship game,” sophomore linebacker Monty Rice said. “He’s the one who hit those field goals.”
It’s the pursuit of perfection that drives Blankenship these days. It’s why he spends countless hours outside of team workouts practicing his kicks. He works under the guidance of his father, Ken Blankenship, Sr., a soccer coach, to perfect his form and make tweaks where necessary. They’re endlessly tinkering, like golfer and swing coach.
When coach Kirby Smart put the heat on him to improve his kickoffs before the 2017 season, Blankenship and his father went to work. He obliterated Kevin Butler’s school record for touchbacks with 67 and put 71.3 percent of his kickoffs in the end zone. That nearly doubled the percentage of his previous season (36).
“You always have to approach it with the mentality and the mindset that you can improve,” Blankenship said. “I didn’t make every kick that I tried last year. That’s, of course, the goal. So if there’s something that I can do to be more consistent, then that’s something I’m going to do.”
At the behest of new full-time special teams coordinator Scott Fountain, Blankenship spent the offseason studying NFL kickers. He’s particularly partial to Greg Zuerlein of the Los Angeles Rams, who led the league last season by making 38-of-40 fields goals, or 95 percent.
If he continues to progress at his current rate, pro ball will be an option for Blankenship, too. An SEC Academic honor roll member in 2016 and 2017, he is due to graduate in December with a degree in journalism.
But don’t take that to mean that Blankenship is all about clean-shaven seriousness now. He’ll still don his “rec specs” and pink cleats this fall. He produced a rap video called ‘ATD’ this summer hyping the Bulldogs’ season. In a word, he’s still “goofy.”
“I guess you could say still am,” he said.
That’s just one reason people pull for Blankenship. That career field-goal percentage doesn’t hurt either. Currently it stands at 82.9. That’s the best in school history at the moment.
“I love Rodrigo, personally,” Rice said. “I see him and I always scream out his name. He’s an awesome dude.”