Georgia’s kicking and punting gets its groove back

ATHENS – Rodrigo Blankenship and Cameron Nizialek, two young men with many syllables, but no football scholarships, stood next to each other Saturday night and looked at a Georgia stat sheet. And they smiled.

Eight months ago, Blankenship was the source of controversy on the Georgia football team, while Nizialek had joined the same team without any fanfare.  The assumption: Blankenship would be gone from the team soon due to his walk-on status, while Nizialek, transferring in from the Ivy League, would merely provide insurance at his position.

Instead, here they were eight months later, taking a happy moment after a round of happy postgame interviews, after a great night: Blankenship supplemented his perfect place-kick nights with splendid kickoffs, while Nizialek had looked outstanding as the punter.

“I can’t give credit to the coverage or the special teams. It was just the specialty players. The kickers,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “Those guys did a tremendous job.”

Blankenship made all four of his extra points and a chip-shot field goal, from 23 yards out. But that wasn’t his issue last year, when he went 14-for-18 and made the SEC All-Freshman team. It was his kickoffs, which averaged 62.2 yards and were touchbacks less than half (20 of 55) of the time.

In the offseason, Blankenship changed his approach to kickoffs, tightening it to create a better follow-through. The result: Five of his six kickoffs were touchbacks, an average of 65 yards per kickoff.

The postgame session was the first time Blankenship was available to the media after the brouhaha earlier this year about his lack of a scholarship. His father went public with his concerns and said his son would have to think about leaving if he didn’t get one. But eventually his son decided he needed to stay, scholarship or not.

“I really love Georgia. I really love this school. It’s presented some great opportunities for me,” said Blankenship, who is working on a journalism major at Grady College. “I love this school. I think I’d be doing a disservice if I left. I decided to stick around and just go with what I was given.”

Blankenship declined comment on if he and Smart had addressed the scholarship situation in the past few weeks. (Chauncey Manac’s departure opens one up.) Blankenship did confirm that he’s still a walk-on – but indicated that he’s been helped by loans and scholarships.

“I have picked a few loans recently,” he said.

Nizialek came to Georgia from Columbia, where graduates are ineligible to play football. So he took it as a chance to try to transfer up, researching the punting situations at Power 5 schools, and landing at Georgia as an option. That was despite the presence of sophomore Marshall Long, who suffered a season-ending knee injury late last year.

“I’ve just always been very confident in myself,” Nizialek said. “Coaches gave me an opportunity, and I think I ran with it. I’m happy with how things are going.”

The question with Nizialek was how he would handle a bigger environment and bigger and better athletes coming at him. But that never seemed a question to him.

“It’s the same thing,” Nizialek said. “The field is the same length. And the rush is the same. I know people think SEC is a lot faster, and it is, but you still have the same amount of time to get the ball off. So I wasn’t worried about it. I felt like I did a good job out there.”

But will it be a whole different animal out there: The crowd won’t be on his side, and Notre Dame players rather than Appalachian State rushing at him?

“I don’t think so. I think it should be the same thing,” Nizialek said. “We’ve got a great punt unit. We’ve got great guys on there. So I think we’re going to keep doing the things we were doing today.”

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