Towers’ Take: Kirby Smart using the fire of competition to mold Bulldogs

Georgia-Rodrigo Blankenship
Georgia freshman Rodrigo Blankenship kicks one of 14 field goals this season. He made 77.8 percent of his kicks last year, which was sixth among SEC kickers.

ATHENS — I’m rooting for Rodrigo Blankenship. I think it’s OK to admit that. I’d like to see the walk-on from Marietta win Georgia’s kicking job. I hope he one day lands a scholarship.

I mean, why wouldn’t anybody in my position want that? The kid looks like “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn from the movie Major League. He fully embraced the Mr. Rec Specs persona that materialized this past season. Blankenship speaks as though he’d be as comfortable at a Star Trek convention as a football game and he actually made a few important kicks, lest we forget. The potential for great storylines is endless with that guy.

But competition is what it’s all about under Kirby Smart at UGA right now, and Blankenship is feeling the brunt of that at the moment.

As a redshirt freshman, Blankenship ended the 2016 season as Georgia’s undisputed starting kicker. He made 77.8 percent of field-goal attempts, which was sixth among SEC kickers, had a long kick of 49 yards and made four field goals in one game — including the game-winner — to lift the Bulldogs to a 27-24 road victory over a good Kentucky team. He led Georgia in scoring with 68 points, which is usually expected of a kicker but is particularly impressive considering Blankenship didn’t begin the season as the primary guy. He became that in Week 4 vs. Ole Miss. Blankenship’s achievements warranted inclusion on the SEC All-Freshman team and at least one recognition as a freshman All-American. Pretty good stuff.

Like most players, Blankenship has some flaws. His field-goal range is moderate. While he was 4-of-6 from 40-49 yards, he made only one attempt of more than 50 yards and missed that one — a 53-yard try versus TCU in the Liberty Bowl — but the kick was blocked. Meanwhile, Georgia’s kickoff coverage ranked 13th among the league’s 14 teams, with an average field position of the 27-yard line. Blankenship didn’t handle every kickoff as the Bulldogs sought to remedy the situation, but only four teams had fewer than UGA’s 24 touchbacks.

That’s what one would call a “serviceable kicker” in the SEC. He’s getting the job done and certainly is not what anyone might term a liability. But it’s also not what most teams strive for, particularly Georgia with its long and proud kicking tradition. The Bulldogs want a scoring weapon. And, as coach Kirby Smart said recently, “we’re trying to find somebody who’ll kick that thing out of the end zone” on kickoffs.

Hence, the recent roster activity we’ve seen from the Bulldogs. Georgia went out and sought immediate help via transfer. Quite notably, the Bulldogs added David Marvin from Wofford of the FCS via graduate transfer. That move did not become public until National Signing Day but apparently took place well before then. UGA is bringing in another transfer, Cameron Nizialek of Columbia, who will compete at both kicker and punter. The Bulldogs added yet another kicker, Brooks Buce of Greater Atlanta Christian, as a walk-on.

When I learned about the Marvin move, I was thinking like a lot of Georgia fans probably were: “We’ll hear from Rodrigo’s father in 3, 2, 1. …” But we never did, and I take that as a good sign.

As we all know, Ken Blankenship Sr., believes his son deserves a scholarship for his contributions this past season and going forward and he made it clear that Rodrigo needs the financial relief. There certainly is reason to agree and at least sympathize with that argument. But Rodrigo distanced himself from his father’s polarizing commentary a while back.

But to me, Georgia’s kicking situation really speaks to the greater whole with regard to the culture Smart is trying to establish with the Bulldogs. It’s all about keeping the furnace of competition stoked and the heat on the players to perform. As cliché as that is, that’s really what it’s all about.

It’s prevalent at every position across the board. The highest profile example is at quarterback. Jacob Eason is certainly a well-established and promising incumbent having started 12 games and producing as a true freshman even better than did future NFL No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford. But that didn’t stop the Bulldogs from going out and signing Jake Fromm, a quarterback who also garnered at least one 5-star recruiting rating. An early enrollee, word is Fromm’s acquisition is already paying dividends as far as creating a competitive offseason environment.

Georgia understandably signed a bunch of highly-touted offensive linemen last week — six in all — to address its shortcomings at that position. But probably even more notable was the Bulldogs’ addition of seven defensive backs. UGA returns all but two starters in the secondary and have capable replacements in several returning lettermen. But the size and number of incoming players at that position indicates a significant level of improvement is expected from that group.

Don’t let Blankenship’s quirky personality confuse you. If you’ve been around this 6-foot-1, 191-pound former soccer player, you know that’s he’s athletically blessed and exceptionally strong and smart. He’s been working with Kevin Butler for the better part of a year now, is conditioning and training daily and is fully-versed on Georgia’s concepts and processes at this point.

So my advice to young Mr. Blankenship would be this: Use all this as fuel for your own improvement.  He remains the man to beat at his position, and his attitude needs to be that he’ll give it up only if it’s pried away from him, scholarship or not be damned. Regardless, the dude is a UGA football letterman for life, and that’s no small accomplishment.

And Blankenship will need to know this, too: He may go out and make every kick and every All-America team, but there will be at least one player added to his position group again next year, and his aim will be to take his job.

This now is the Georgia way.

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