ATHENS — The “specs” helped make him famous, but they’re not for show. Those thick, black, goggle-like sports glasses are not a marketing tool. They absolutely are necessary for Rodrigo Blankenship to see what he’s doing, which is kind of important as Georgia’s leading scorer.
Just ask coach Kirby Smart, who actually tried on Blankenship’s specs last week, as part of an ESPN feature piece in advance of the Florida game.
“I don’t understand eyesight, but I don’t see how those could help anybody see. I really don’t,” Smart quipped as the Bulldogs’ weekly news conference on Monday. “I’ve never really tried anybody’s glasses on. I guess the harder it is for me to see with them on, then maybe the worse off he needs them. But I know one thing: He sees that ball on the ground, and he gets his toe on the leather real well. So they must work for him.”
They do. Like, really well.
— Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) October 28, 2018
They’ve worked so well that Blankenship is no longer just a regional sensation. He’s a national sensation. ESPN’s College Game Day devoted more than four minutes of it’s pregame broadcast to the feature story they did on the junior from Marietta. Blankenship is now considered a front runner for the Lou Groza Award, which goes annually to the best kicker in the country. He’s a preseason All-America candidate. He’s a member of the 2018 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
UGA coeds attending the Georgia-Florida game last Saturday held up signs that read, “Hot Rod, will you marry me?” (Sorry, girls, he’s taken). Over and above even the dashing quarterback Jake Fromm and the beloved backs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift, he regular draws the loudest ovations during pregame introductions.
The “Legend of the Specs” began at the place where Blankenship and the Bulldogs are returning this Saturday — Lexington, Ky. It was there, at Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium, where Blankenship delivered the game-winning field goal as time expired. Which was great. But then Blankenship conducted the postgame, live-television interview with his helmet and specs still in place, and Blankenship went from beloved and dependable former walk-on to UGA icon.
The kick itself was just an itty-bitty 25-yarder that would defeat a Kentucky team that would finish 7-6. But it served as the launching pad for Blankenship and everything he is known for today, like “Hot Rod,” “Mr. Rec Specs” and the social media hashtag, #respectthespecs.
“It was a special moment to go out and do that for that team in that intense moment” Blankenship recalled before Georgia began preparations for Kentucky on Monday. “I do think it gave me a little bit more confidence the rest of that season. It gave me something to build off of the rest of the way, just that they trusted me in that situation to execute my job for them.”
At the time, and maybe for a while after, all that moment did was turn Blankenship into a novelty, a cute little story. Not long afterward, it morphed into a controversy over whether or not he deserved a scholarship.
Now Blankenship has parlayed that moment into a full-blown enterprise. And, to be clear, it’s not because he’s a slick marketer. It’s because he’s good at what he does. Extremely good.
Today, Blankenship is one of the most dependable kickers in the game. This season, he’s the leading scorer in the SEC with 59 points, he’s 12-of-14 on field goals, and he’s never missed an extra point in his career, holding the school record at 125-of-125.
And whatever weaknesses he had that made Smart wary about placing Blankenship on scholarship have long since been eviscerated. The player once criticized by Smart for not being able to reach the end zone on kickoffs broke Kevin Butler’s school record for touchbacks with 67 last year and is second in the nation this year with 53 on 59 kickoffs.
As hard as it is now to believe, field-goal range also was once a concern. Blankenship enters the Kentucky game 3-of-4 in his career on attempts of more than 50 yards, with a long of 53 yards this season and a Rose Bowl record of 55 against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals last year.
That — production — is why Blankenship has become a legendary figure in Georgia football lore. And while the specs phenomena and fame is cool, it’s on team goals and his craft that Blankenship focuses all his time and energy.
“I try to focus on things that are my own, like the statistics that I contribute to the team,” said the Sprayberry High graduate. “I’m looking at field-goal percentage, touch-back percentage, field-zone percentage, which is the how much of the time I hit the ball where the coaches are asking me to hit the ball. Things like that.”
About this, Blankenship’s coaches and teammates have taken notice. They have seen not only all the meaningful kicks that their kicker has made, but the work and effort he puts into it each week.
“Rob has always pulled through for us,” said junior defensive back Tyrique McGhee. “He’s automatic, man. I’ll be surprised if he ever misses one the rest of his life. The guy is clutch, and we’re just happy to have a kicker like that. A weapon like that on special teams is big.”
As for those rec-specs that have made him a household name, the ultimate irony is those are the byproduct of an inherent weakness, too. Those glasses are no prop. As Smart discovered himself, Blankenship can’t see very well.
“I’m near-sighted,” Blankenship said. “It’s much easier for me to see close up than it is far away. So being able to see important things like the play-clock on a kickoff or a field goal or the uprights on a 50-yard field, I need my specs to be able to see that. It’s helpful to have a nice, sharp image.”
For the record, Blankenship has tried contacts but doesn’t like them and isn’t a fan of having surgery on his eyes at this point in his young life.
Now, Blankenship probably couldn’t ditch the specs if he wanted. Thanks to that little game-winner in Lexington two years ago, those thick, black rims are his Superman cape, his Michael Jackson glove. Today, he can’t walk across campus or even through an airport without being noticed.
About all this, Blankenship remains decidedly humble. He knows all too well the precarious place a kicker occupies on any team. You’re only as good as your latest meaningful kick. True humility — and sometimes downright meanness — always remains a missed-kick away.
Blankenship reminded reporters on Monday that the Kentucky moment wasn’t his first time to experience notoriety.
“I don’t know that that was necessarily when people began to notice who I was,” he said. “I think people started to know who I was when I actually missed my first career field-goal (attempt) at Ole Miss. The Internet kind of flamed me, and that was a rough introduction to my college career. But I think I’d say it was necessary for me to learn the mindset that I needed to improve.”
Blankenship did, and he continues to. It’s at the point now where a professional career is in sight. Everybody can envision that now, even if Blankenship can’t see.
All that began to come into view against Kentucky in Lexington two years ago, when Rec Specs became part of the UGA lexicon.
“They must work for him,” Smart said of Blankenship’s iconic eyewear. “But he did a great job in that game two years ago. I think that certainly gave him the confidence — gave us the confidence in him — that he was a pressure player and enjoyed the moment and did a good job of that.”
Everybody can see that now, Blankenship included.