UGA’s love affair with Rodrigo Blankenship took off at Notre Dame

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 @ 2:23 PM
By Chip Towers - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Before every Georgia home game, Sanford Stadium public-address announcer Brook Whitmire announces the Bulldogs’ projected starting lineup for that day’s contest to the gathering crowd. UGA fans typically respond with enthusiastic applause.

But over and above sensation quarterback Jake Fromm, over and above superstar running back D’Andre Swift, louder even than newly-arrived 5-stars such as George Pickens, the most emphatic and boisterous roars these days are reserved for one of the last names Whitmire calls.

Rodrigo Blankenship.

Everybody seems to have taken notice of this current phenomenon. With the exception, that is, of the famously-bespectacled and gloriously quirky place-kicker himself.

“Not really,” said Blankenship, a fifth-year senior affectionately known to fans as ‘Hot Rod’ and ‘Rec Specs.’ “I’m getting in my last warm-up kicks into the net on the sideline and just trying to focus on that and block everything else out.”

Perhaps therein lies the secret to Blankenship’s success. Behind those black rims, Blankenship is a meticulous tinkerer who is endlessly working on his craft. That's why he can, depending on the whims of his coaches, either boot a kickoff out of the back of the end zone, or drop it five yards inside boundary on the 3-yard line with 4.5 seconds of hang time.

That's the secret sauce, according to one former Georgia kicker, who also was wildly popular in his day.

“I certainly have noticed it, just like everybody else,” Kevin Butler said of the hearty ovations directed at Blankenship. Butler was an All-American and four-time All-SEC player while playing for Georgia from 1981-84, and he remains the only place-kicker in the College Football Hall of Fame.

“What’s behind his popularity is he’s successful,” Butler said. “As a kicker, that’s the type of impact you can have. You’re there to score. And Rod’s made some big kicks in his career.”

Photo: Christina R. Matacotta

One of the biggest of Blankenship’s career came two years ago when the Bulldogs last played Notre Dame. Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal with 3:34 remaining in the fourth quarter ended up being the difference in a 20-19 victory. The teams meet again Saturday in Athens.

That will always be a special memory for the Blankenship family because that was the night that coach Kirby Smart announced to the world that Blankenship had been awarded a scholarship just days before the game. In a moment carefully orchestrated by Smart, Blankenship shared that development with his teammates in the Bulldogs’ victorious postgame locker room. The unbridled celebration that followed has been preserved for the ages on video, which went viral in the game’s immediate aftermath. 

That is a memory Blankenship won’t soon forget.

“He told me I could tell my parents, but to keep quiet about it for the team because he had something planned,” Blankenship recalled this week. “I had no idea what it was, so I just trusted him. Turned out that was a pretty great way to tell the team. I mean, that was incredible.”

Turns out, Smart also had competitive objectives for giving it to Blankenship when he did.

“I thought it would be a tight ballgame and thought it might help his confidence knowing that he wasn't having the pressure of (earning) a scholarship out there kicking,” Smart said revealed this week. “He already had it. He had won the job and ended up coming out and making big field goals in the game. We just let everybody know afterwards, but he knew before.”

Blankenship acknowledged that Smart’s ploy probably did help him psychologically that night. But mostly forgotten by history is the fact that he didn’t make all his kicks that night in South Bend. He missed a 44-yarder in the third quarter.

“I try to treat every kick as if it’s the biggest kick and the most important kick they we could possibly have,” Blankenship said. “Given the circumstances, that (last kick versus Notre Dame) was an important one in that game, but there were other opportunities we had in that game where we could have done some things better.”

Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Indeed, it hasn’t been all balloons and confetti for Blankenship. He doesn’t talk much about it, but his hooked miss of a 30-yard field goal attempt midway through the third quarter of last year’s SEC Championship game against Alabama will always haunt Blankenship. It would’ve given the Bulldogs a three-score lead in a game the Crimson Tide came back in to win 35-28.

“I was hurting for him as much as he was hurting for the team,” Butler said of the aftermath. “As a kicker, you feel like you failed and that was the difference in the game. But you also can’t let that define you as a kicker. Whenever I missed one, my thought process was always, I’m not going to miss two in a row.”

So far, Blankenship hasn’t done that. In fact, he has had very few misses in his career. He enters the fourth game of his fourth season as Georgia’s kicker having made 58 of his 69 career field-goal attempts, or 84 percent.

And that includes a lot of long ones. He’s 4-of-5 for his career from over 50 yards, with a long of 55 yards. Blankenship also is a perfect 173-of-173 on extra points, which is a school record. So are his 187 career touchbacks, which has eclipsed Butler’s UGA record.

By the end of it, he’s probably going to have them all.

“He really is one of the most focused kickers I have ever been around on game day,” said Butler, who tutored Blankenship as a student assistant coach in 2017 and ’18. “His quirkiness and obsession with his routine is one of the things that has made him great. And now he’s turning into a complete kicker.”

Which brings us back to the level of adoration directed at Blankenship. Georgia fans have always loved the kickers. Rex Robinson, who preceded Butler, was extremely popular. So was John Kasay and Billy Bennett and Marshall Morgan.

Allan Leavitt (1973-76) was considered the first big star of the soccer-style era, though UGA historian Loran Smith recalls Peter Rajecki (1968-70) – a German native nicknamed “the Bootin’ Teuton” – as being incredibly popular with the Bulldogs’ fan base.

But everybody seems to agree, there has never been a Georgia kicker as universally admired and beloved as Rodrigo Blankenship.

“I think it’s because he’s somewhat of an oddball, in a lovable kind of way,” Smith said. “He’s just a different kind of guy, with those goggles he’s wears and how he carries himself.”

Count Smart among those who love Blankenship, and he thinks he knows why so many other UGA folks do, too.

“They love him because he's a Dawg through and through,” Smart said. “He's got a great personality. He loves Georgia. He sells Georgia. He's a tremendous asset for us, but I love the kid as a person because of everything he's persevered and been through.”

About all this, Blankenship can only grin and blush. Once a skinny soccer kid who just showed up from Marietta hoping to live out a crazy dream, he’s now a strapping, muscular, elite athlete that the Bulldogs believe gives them an edge in big games such as the one they’ll play Saturday.

That Blankenship also happens be a cult hero and the object of so much affection is something he’ll probably never get used to.

“I mean, I love our fans; I love ‘dawg nation’ to the bottom of my heart,’” Blankenship said. “A lot of times they’re trying to get my attention on the sidelines when I’m warming up in the net because they’re right there. But as much as I want to turn around and acknowledge them and take pictures with them, I’ve got to focus on the game.

“I have to focus on my craft and doing everything I can to help the team.”

Keep doing that, and Blankenship can be sure the love will keep coming his way.