ATHENS — This is a fun time for Rodrigo Blankenship at Georgia, or at least it should be. How long it lasts ultimately will be up to head coach Kirby Smart.
If the Bulldogs can’t come up with a scholarship for the redshirt freshman walk-on from Marietta after this season, Georgia’s new star at place-kicker won’t be back next year. That’s according to Blankenship’s father.
“Rodrigo has committed to the ‘G,’ but we are puzzled why Coach Smart has not yet committed to the ‘R,’” Ken Blankenship said in an email follow-up to a telephone interview on Monday. “His support seems to stop at the front gate of the scholarship house.”
As of Monday, Smart wasn’t ready to make such a commitment.
“We determine that kind of stuff at the end of the year,” Smart said at his weekly news conference. “We look at the whole and kind of where we’re at and go through recruiting. We’re obviously in hot pursuit of good specialists because that’s an area we’ve got to improve on. But that will be based off how (Blankenship) finishes up, the whole picture, where we are. He’s certainly done a great job and has gained a lot of confidence, which I’m fired up about.”
— Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) November 7, 2016
Ken Blankenship was angered upon hearing this response from Smart, who he has not met personally.
“If he really is Rodrigo’s advocate, as anyone would hope the head coach would be for his player, why doesn’t he just come out and say that Rodrigo deserves a scholarship based on performance so far, and he’s going to make sure he’s going to get one instead of hedging his support and enthusiasm? Does he have another agenda?” Ken Blankenship said.
That’s the cold, business side of what has been an otherwise whimsical story surrounding Rodrigo Blankenship the past few days. His digital likeness has gone viral on the Internet. He has become a proverbial overnight sensation for the Bulldogs.
That happened after Blankenship kicked four field goals – including the game-winner as time expired – to lift UGA to a 27-24 victory over Kentucky Saturday night in Lexington. It continued quite a hot streak for a player who was beat out by fellow walk-on William Ham to start the season. Since missing the first attempt of his career on the road at Ole Miss in September, he has been successful on his last nine kicks. Included in that streak was a 49-yarder versus the Wildcats on Saturday.
This is how you conduct a winning postgame interview: Helmet on. Hater blockers activated. ??? pic.twitter.com/kB4O089jOC
— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) November 6, 2016
After Blankenship’s fully-helmeted-and-goggled postgame interview with the SEC Network’s Kylee Hartung, and later when UGA and SEC fans saw Blankenship’s oversized “rec specs” and pencil-thin mustache in full, resplendent view, things took off. Headlines like “Respect The Specs,” “Fear The Goggles” and “Goggles Of Greatness” began to pop up underneath Blankenship’s picture on Facebook and Instagram. The hashtag #HotRodForPres2K16 began to trend on Twitter. Teammates joined in and retweeted with their other nicknames for Blankenship, such as “Rocket Rod” and “Hot Rod.”
One fan found some footage and photos illustrating Blankenship as the near-perfect doppelganger for actor Charlie Sheen in his famous role as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from the movie Major League.
— Carol F (@AthRetrogirl) November 6, 2016
It has been a hoot. Mostly.
“It’s really pleasing for his mother and me to see him get some kind of reward for all his hard work,” said Ken Blankenship, Rodrigo’s father, “even if it’s just on the Internet.”
If you sense some tension between the Blankenships and UGA, you’d be right. According to Ken Blankenship, this goes back to when Blankenship agreed to become at walkon at Georgia when he graduated from Sprayberry High in 2015. He has always asserted that his son, a U.S. Army All-American, had as many as 10 offers to attend other schools. He claims that Rodrigo came to UGA — which still had Marshall Morgan on the roster as a scholarshipped senior at the time — under an agreement with then-head coach Mark Richt that he’d be placed on scholarship if he eventually earned the starting job.
That narrative is disputed by others in the microcosmic world of place-kicker recruiting. Marc Nolan runs “The Kickers’ Zone” kicking camp out of Woodstock and wrote an e-book called, “The Journey: A Road Map for Every Kicking Specialist and Their Parents.” Nolan knows the Blankenships and is familiar with their recruiting story. He contends that Blankenship was never made such a promise by Richt or John Lilly, who was then co-special teams coordinator and the lead recruiter. Richt and his staff were dismissed after the regular season last year.
The Blankenships list scholarship offers from Florida, Colorado State, The Citadel, UAB, Wofford, Army, Navy, Davidson, Mercer and Cornell. That is corroborated to varying extents on recruiting websites such as 247Sports.com and Rivals.com. However, Nolan contends that not all of those were legitimate letters-of-intent.
“All I can tell you is in the world of kicking and punting, if you’re that good and you have an actual scholarship offer, you take it,” said Nolan, who works with former Bulldogs Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber. “They just don’t hand out many. If they give you a letter-of-intent, you sign it and you send it in.”
Finances are at the center of this dispute. Ken Blankenship is 67 and recently retired from the Cobb County school system. A longtime soccer coach, he still works as a substitute teacher and serves as a community coach for the football team. He has coached Rodrigo going back to his son’s days as a youth soccer player.
Ken Blankenship said he has “had to sell off chunks” of his retirement fund each semester in order to pay Rodrigo’s tuition and board. His daughter, Trina Blankenship, also sent an email describing her father’s “dire financial situation.”
Blankenship said he has informed his son that this next spring semester, when he is expected to be accepted into the Grady College of Journalism, is the last time he will be able to pay his way. If Rodrigo hasn’t earned a scholarship from UGA by then, he will transfer to an FCS school so he won’t have to sit out a year. Rodrigo will have three years of eligibility remaining after this season.
— Logan Booker (@LoganMBooker) November 8, 2016
“I did inform the coaching staff about what could happen,” Ken Blankenship said in a telephone interview. “I wrote (UGA) a letter before the season started, so they’ve known all of this.”
Nolan said while he appreciates Ken Blankenship’s financial realities, he would advise him to take a different tact.
“My counsel to Ken would be to cool his jets and not force the issue,” Nolan said. “Fifty or 60 days from now you’ll know whether Kirby Smart’s going to give you an offer; he’s going to do what he has to do. I’d tell Ken not to add anymore stress to Rodrigo’s life. It’s hard enough to kick in the SEC.”
It’s somewhat of a shame that internal politics would taint such an otherwise feel-good story.
“When I think about him, I just think he wants to do anything he can to help the team,” teammate D’Andre Walker said. “When it came down to kicking situation, it was amazing what he did at Kentucky.”
As for Blankenship’s unique look and style, Walker laughed out loud. “That’s the Hot Rod look! Only Hot Rod can pull it off.”