ATHENS — Rodrigo Blankenship insisted he had no idea what the record was or who owned it. But now that he knows it’s within his grasp, he wouldn’t mind kicking it down at some point this year. And he likely will.
College Football Hall of Fame member Kevin Butler owns the Georgia record for touchbacks in a season. He had 51 in 1981, according to UGA. One has to ask because it’s not listed among the records in the team media guide.
For his part, Blankenship knew he was kicking off well this season and doing what coach Kirby Smart wanted, which is to “kick it out of the end zone if you can.” Blankenship has come through on that front 37 times this year. So just 15 more, and he’ll have the record all to himself.
“It’d be nice to get it,” said Blankenship, who actually works every week with Butler, who is in his second season as a student assistant. “But, at the end of the day, I’m trying to get as many touchbacks as I can, to be the best asset I can be for this team. Any records I can get along the way are just icing on the cake.”
Butler, who had a 13-year career in the NFL, himself had only a four-word statement on the subject.
“He better break it,” he said.
It’s actually a remarkable transformation from just a year ago. Blankenship had just 21 touchbacks on 55 kickoffs in 2016. That’s one of the main reasons Smart sought kickers to come in and compete with him before this season.
But Blankenship worked intensely with his lifelong kicking coach — his father, retired Cobb County soccer coach Ken Blankenship — to find a way to make improvements. He adjusted his angle of approach to the ball and also the frequency and days that he would practice kickoffs.
By all accounts, he has found a near-perfect formula. He has recorded touchbacks on 74 percent of kickoffs (37 of 50) this season. That’s compared to 38 percent a year ago.
Auburn’s Daniel Carlson leads the SEC with 49 touchbacks. Blankenship, a redshirt sophomore, is second and Alabama is the only other team with 30-plus touchbacks.
Sometimes Blankenship’s kickoffs have been only a few yards deep, but he’s generally getting exceptional hang time. Coupled with the speed on the coverage team, opposing returners have had no choice but to take a knee.
But Blankenship’s favorite kickoffs are those that clear the end zone. On at least two occasions this season, he has split the uprights of the goal posts 75 yards away.
“More times than not I know as soon as it comes off my foot whether or not it’s going to be a touchback,” said Blankenship, a graduate of Marietta’s Sprayberry High School. “There are times I know it’s going to be clear out of the end zone. Most of the time you’ve got to wait until it hits the apex or starts to come down before you realize whether I hit it really solid.”
While kicking the ball out of the end zone has been his stated goal all season, Blankenship was sometimes asked to kick directionally last season. There is the possibility of forcing the opposing offense to start inside the 25-yard line if you can get enough hang time and force returners to field the ball inside the 5- or 10-yard line. Georgia has done that a couple of times this season, but basically by accident.
“For me personally, I like the idea of them not having a chance at all to return it,” Blankenship said in an interview after practice Tuesday. “When I do happen to get a touchback, it’s a sigh of relief for me. I’m just allowing our defense a guaranteed number of yards to work with when they come out on the field. I’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping other teams in the end zone so far.”
Blankenship is doing a great job overall. He has also made 10 of his 11 field goal attempts. Along with David Marvin’s one make this season, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in field goal percentage at .917.
Blankenship’s improvement has been no accident. In addition to absorbing the instruction of Butler and special teams analyst Scott Fountain, he also has worked to get stronger. He participates in the workouts of the entire team every Wednesday, then does a dedicated regimen with the rest of the kicking specialists every Sunday.
After arriving at 175 pounds as a walk-on freshman, the 6-foot-1 Blankenship now weighs in at 192 pounds.
“It’s all pretty much muscle and lean weight,” Blankenship said proudly.
Preliminary weather reports indicate there could be some rain in Jacksonville on Saturday. In preparation, Blankenship and the other kickers are practicing with a wet ball every day.
“The balls are going to be a little heavier and they might not go as far. Other than that, it’s just going to be business as usual,” he said.
As for the matchup Saturday of No. 3-ranked and undefeated Georgia against Florida (3-3, 3-2 SEC), Blankenship said he’s supremely motivated to get his first win against the Gators.
“They are one of the biggest rivals we have at this school. But, you know, we’re putting all our personal desires aside and just focusing on us and trying to be the best that we can be,” Blankenship said. “At the end of the day, they’re just another team that’s in the way of us achieving the goals that we want. So we’re going to treat them exactly the same way we’ve treated every team this year. We’re going to go out and handle business ourselves and let the past be the past.”