Kickers share center spotlight in 2016 Georgia-Georgia Tech clash

Rodrigo Blankenship delivers the game-winning kick against Kentucky, a 25-yarder as time expired that lifted Georgia to a 27-24 victory.

As main characters to the violent drama of football, kickers don’t make for the greatest action heroes.

Kickers don’t tower. They don’t glower. Kickers don’t fill out their uniforms with implied muscular menace. They are barely on the field, in and out of the spotlight long enough to leave a footprint of modest dimension in the grass.

In fact, listen to what Georgia’s heavily bespectacled Rodrigo Blankenship had to say recently about the most fundamental and obligatory physical act performed afield:

“I’ve made tackles before. It’s not my favorite activity, but I don’t mind it, I suppose. I’m always looking for my Rec Specs afterward because they always pop off,” he said.

But the kicker profile is a bit heightened for Saturday’s Georgia-Georgia Tech unpleasantries. The personalities and the past performances of the characters involved — both born of the Atlanta area, by the way — are too big to simply overlook. And given the flighty nature of both teams’ seasons, isn’t it quite easy to envision this one coming down to the foot of one or the other?

Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship gets an appreciative hug from offensive lineman Tyler Catalina in celebration of a win over Auburn. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Based on seniority, we begin with Harrison Butker, a senior just wrapping up the heavy lifting on an industrial engineering degree at Tech.

As he verges on departing as Tech’s all-time leading scorer (just four points shy of kicker Luke Manget’s record), Butker also made his mark by advancing the notion that kickers really are woven into the fabric of a football team, not merely specialists residing on the margins.

He’s quite articulate on the subject, in fact: “If you don’t have some sort of unique athletic ability that’s inside you, that competitiveness that wants to be part of a team, that wants to strive to be better with all those high-caliber athletes around you — if you can’t fit in with those guys and feel you belong there — you’re not going to do well.”

It was one giant leap for kickers when Butker was named a Yellow Jacket team captain this year, the first time a specialist was so honored there in more than 20 years.

Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker hits a 53-yard field goal to tie the game at the end of regulation in 2014. (HYSOUB SHIN/AJC)

Every time he hears coach Paul Johnson yell, “Captains out!” and he walks to the middle of the field for the pregame coin flip, Butker is moved. “It’s a cool feeling going out into the middle of the stadium and thinking how fortunate am I to have these tens of thousands of people watch me play football,” he said.

“For away games, it’s kind of cool because they’re booing you.”

His last regular-season game will be such an away game, on the most hostile of turf in Athens. The last time Butker was in that stadium (2014) was most eventful: He made a 53-yarder to send a game eventually won by Tech into overtime. Although he considers his three-field goal performance against Florida State last year, which included another 53-yarder, to be his most shining moment at Tech.

The stats of both kickers in Saturday’s game are mirror images: Both 11-of-13 on field goals (83.3 percent), both perfect on PATs.

How they arrived at this intersection was markedly different, though. While Butker was basking in his captaincy, Blankenship was just trying to make himself useful. A walk-on still without scholarship, the redshirt freshman looked on while William Ham won the kicking job coming out of training camp. It wasn’t until the season’s fourth game against Ole Miss — Georgia’s kicking game a shambles — that Blankenship made his debut. He missed his first kick, a 36-yarder.

But then he made his next 10, before missing a 49-yarder against Auburn. Making four field goals against Kentucky, including a walk-off game-winner, turned Blankenship into something of a cult figure. The clumsy goggles — his eyes don’t cotton to contacts — and the obliviousness behind doing his big network interview afterward with his helmet on were endearing. Playing along, Blankenship wore his helmet to his next interview session, two days after the Kentucky game.

With a Brazilian mother and a soccer-mad father, Blankenship has kicking in his blood. American football gained primacy early, though. “I had always pictured myself playing somewhere in the SEC as far as football went. My parents and I saw a future in college football before we did in college soccer. The mindset was always more geared toward football,” he said.

And Georgia always was a preferred destination. He was attracted by both the level of competition and the journalism school there. (He pictures himself a sports broadcaster one day). If that meant rolling the dice and going there as a walk-on in favor of other programs that offered a scholarship, Blankenship had the belief in himself to take the risk.

Just 19, Blankenship does not sound as if he will concede anything to the older Butker should Saturday come down to one press-laden swing of the leg.

Listen to Blankenship describe the thinking that goes into a big kick. “A pretty common expression in the kicking world is that kicking is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. The majority of the physical work you do is practice. When you get into the game, it becomes almost all mental, just allowing your mind to know that your body has done the work that it needs to have good muscle memory and good habits when you got out to perform.”

Despite the slight age difference of a couple years and in geographical distance between them — Blankenship from Marietta, Butker from Decatur — they are familiar with each other. The fraternity of kicking is tight, and these two have been thrown together at camps here and there.

There’s even a mutual admiration at work. “I’m happy for him,” Butker said of his Georgia counterpart. “Hey, everybody’s got their own thing. I guess wearing those goggles is his thing.”

The goodwill, however, is scheduled to be suspended for a weekend.

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