ATHENS – Rodrigo Blankenship was asked about the new tradition of lighting up Sanford Stadium before the fourth quarter, when Georgia fans lift their phones and push the flashlight app.
“You have 93,000 – well not exactly 93,000 cell phone lights because some of them are a little bit older who have flip phones – like my dad,” Blankenship said, smiling.
Reporters laughed. The mood is lighter these days when it comes to a formerly sore subject. Rodrigo Blankenship is on scholarship, at least for now. Kirby Smart has a kicker who is booming it, and Smart credits Ken Blankenship for being part of the reason.
Eight months ago Blankenship’s walk-on status was the source of controversy, a freshman All-SEC kicker whose family still had to pay his way. There was a tense meeting between the main parties, and then Ken Blankenship went public with his concerns. Georgia recruited another kicker on scholarship, and many assumed Rodrigo’s days at UGA were numbered.
But now here he is, the starter. And the feel-good story of the Notre Dame game was the news that Smart had put Blankenship on scholarship.
“I don’t get into playing out things in the paper. That’s not a big deal for me,” Smart said Tuesday when asked about his thought process during the situation. “Communicated with his dad, told him which direction we were headed. He didn’t necessarily agree, and we moved on, agreed to disagree.
“He’s got a scholarship now. He’s earned it. Rod’s been nothing but positive. Rod is one of the best teammates on this team. He sits right in that seat every team meeting and he’s at the edge of his seat, and he’s so excited to be part of this program. And he’s done nothing but work his tail off. So I was very happy to be able to reward on him on what he’s done.
“But nothing between me and his father. It’s not about us. It’s about Rod.”
And Rod has been pretty good through three games.
He’s hit 3 of his 4 field goal attempts and all of his extra points. That’s in line with what he did last year, when he was 14 for 18 on field goals and never missed a PAT.
But there has been a remarkable improvement in Blankenship’s kickoffs, with 13 of his 18 being touchbacks. Last year only 20 of his 55 kickoffs were touchbacks.
Some aren’t even close now: All seven of Blankenship’s kickoffs against Samford were touchbacks, and three went out of the end zone.
And when Smart was asked about that, who did he credit? Ken Blankenship.
“I think his dad’s had a lot to do with it,” Smart said. “He came out here and worked hard in the offseason.”
Said Blankenship: “I love my dad. He’s so great. He’s been there for me every single step of the way. He’s been my main coach since I first started playing football.”
That said, this offseason was no different from any other, Blankenship added. He worked with his dad, coaches at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Ga., and of course those at Georgia.
The kickoffs have improved mainly because he changed his approach to the ball, tightening it to get a better follow through. But Blankenship also credited work he’s done with Georgia’s strength and conditioning staff.
It also helped to have some competition. David Marvin, brought in on scholarship as a graduate transfer from Wofford, gave Blankenship a push. But the incumbent kept the job.
“He raised his competition level up to beat the competition,” Smart said.
That said, the scholarship story might not be quite over. Blankenship’s scholarship is on a one-year basis, as are most walk-ons who are awarded.
He still has to prove himself.
“I’ve got to prove I’ve earned it,” Blankenship said. “And hopefully if I continue to perform like this throughout the rest of this season, then next spring and next summer, maybe I’ll get it back next year.”