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(Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Hooking this 31-yard field goal attempt wide left against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game haunted Rodrigo Blankenship for weeks afterward.

SPRING PREVIEW: Fan favorite Rodrigo Blankenship aims for his last season at UGA to be his best

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL ANALYSIS

Part VIII: The Kicking Game

This is Part 8 in a series breaking down and analyzing each position group for the Georgia Bulldogs in advance of spring football practice, which is scheduled to begin on March 19.

ATHENS — Rodrigo Blankenship says it’s important to have a short memory as a place-kicker. Hopefully that philosophy extends to seasons as well as from kick-to-kick.

Blankenship did not have a bad season in 2018. Not by a long stretch. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that Blankenship should have won the Lou Groza Award, which goes annually to the nation’s premier place-kicker. Or at least been a finalist. Alas, he was only a semifinalist.

Georgia football-Rodrigo Blankenship-Rec Specs is now a UGA icon-Georgia Bulldogs
Rodrigo Blankenship is no longer just novelty or a beloved Georgia football player. He’s an iconic figure and a dependable scoring weapon for the Bulldogs. (Bob Andres/AJC)

The Groza went instead to Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt, who had a fine year as the Orange’s place-kicker (61-61 PATs, 30-34 FGs). But he didn’t handle kickoffs, and neither did two of the three finalists. None those kickers came close to Blankenship “total kicking” number, which is 14.57.

Blankenship was 19-of-23 on field goals and a perfect 65-of-65 on PATs. But where he really distinguished himself was in the area of kickoffs. Those who have paid close attention to the rising senior’s career realize that was once a shortcoming. It’s not anymore. After struggling to reach the end zone as a redshirt freshman, Blankenship recorded touchbacks on 71.2 percent of kickoffs as a sophomore and 85.4 percent (82-of-96) as a junior.

Nevertheless, if Blankenship were to tell you how his junior year went from a production standpoint, he’d probably come back with an “OK.” For while he provided the Bulldogs with what they most needed — a dependable and consistent presence — Blankenship aspires to perfection. Meanwhile, the times where he was able to be a difference maker such as he was in 2017 were few and far between last. In fact, Blankenship’s most defining kick of a 2018 was a miss. While it represented only one failure in a cascade of failures in the second half of the SEC Championship Game, there’s no downplaying the effect of Blankenship’s hooked 30-yard field-goal try against Alabama. With Georgia leading by two touchdowns with 8:20 remaining in the third quarter, it represented the crack in a dam that would give way to an all-out breach as the Crimson Tide came from behind for a 35-28 win.

“The play clock got real low and we kind of rushed it,” a downtrodden Blankenship said of the shocking miss. “We rushed to get it off. I rushed my approach. You saw the results.”

And then there were the fakes. Blankenship found himself at the center of two of them. Both of them failed miserably. The one early against LSU in which he was asked to run for a first down on fourth-and-11 completely stole the momentum from the Bulldogs for the rest of the game. The one at the end against Auburn — a pass to Isaac Nauta — was unnecessary from a time and score standpoint and also for revealed to future opponents a good play that could’ve been better utilized in a more meaningful moment (not to mention that it bordered on poor sportsmanship).

So in a lot of ways, 2018 was a forgettable season for Blankenship. The good news is, he remains ever-forgetful, as all good kickers are taught to be. The Allstate Good Works team finalist is a tireless and conscientious worker and a meticulous tinkerer. He will be a year older, will be bigger and stronger and should not only be one of Georgia greatest offensive threats, but remain one of the fans’ most beloved Bulldogs.

As long as Blankenship gets to stick to doing what he does best — kicking the football — his senior season should be his best of all. And maybe those folks at the Palm Beach Sports Commission who present the Groza Award will recognize Mr. Rec Specs for what he is — one of the greatest kickers in the college game.

KICKING GAME

  • Returning starters: Place-kickers — Rodrigo Blankenship, 6-1, 191, senior; kick returners — none
  • Others returning: Kickers — Brooks Buce, 6-0, 175, RSo.; Jake Camarda, 6-2, 180, So.; Jack Podlesny, 6-4, 180, RFr.; returners — Brian Herrien, 6-0, 210, Sr.; Tyler Simmons, 6-0, 201, Sr.; Demetris Robertson, 6-0, 190, Jr.; Eric Stokes, 6-1, 185, Jr.; Tyson Campbell, 6-2, 185, So.; Kearis Jackson, 6-0, 200, RFr.
  • Early enrollees: N/A
  • On the way: Dominick Blaylock, 6-1, 195, freshman
  • Analysis: Rodrigo Blankenship rates among the top returning kickers in the country in terms of “total kicking,” which takes into account extra points, field goals and kickoffs. But he was not as automatic as today’s NFL kickers are, and that’s what he aspires to be. Blankenship will look to cut down on the number of misses from last year (4). Two were in the 30-yard range and the other two were from over 40. He will also hope to get more more field-goal opportunities (23). … Georgia definitely had a special returner in Mecole Hardman, who handled kickoffs almost exclusively and most punts as well. But there’s room for improvement. The Bulldogs were fourth among SEC teams in kickoff returns (22.85 yards) and did not have a touchdown return for a second straight season. Finding a player capable of taking the ball the length of the field will be a priority in spring practice. The candidates are many.
  • Bottom line: Georgia should again be one of the best teams in the SEC and the country as far as placement kicks and kickoffs. The key will be taking advantage of that strength and not botch it through ill-conceived and unnecessary risk-taking. Likewise, having fewer miscues and becoming more consistent in the return game would be helpful to the Bulldogs’ cause as well. With advantages in other areas on the field, Georgia simply needs to hold serve on special teams to do what it needs to win. But with the talent at the coaches disposal, it should be able to do much more than that.

UP NEXT: Bulldogs look for improvement on punts while breaking in a new long snapper in 2019.

SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW