ATHENS – The last time most folks saw Jack Podlesny, he was being swallowed up in a red-and-black blob of celebration after making a game-winning 53-yard field goal in Georgia’s win over No. 8 Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day. Almost eight months later, a lot has changed.
First off, he’s not a walk-on kicker for the Bulldogs anymore. He’s on full scholarship.
Second, he secured a few NIL deals. Affectionately known nowadays as “Jackpod,” you can buy a red Jackpod workout shirt for $28 off his website, jackpod.deco-apparel.com.
But as much as things are different, Podlesny would just as soon have them stay the same. He doesn’t want to lose the edge that saw him out-duel a freshman already on scholarship to earn the starting place-kicker’s job last season and keep it all season.
Podlesny concluded his sophomore season by extending Georgia’s consecutive extra-point streak to an NCAA record 330 by going 38-of-38 and became a Lou Groza Award semifinalist after converting 13 of 16 field-goal tries. That included three kicks of more than 50 yards, including the aforementioned one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Heady stuff, indeed. But Podlesny is working hard to keep it out of his head.
“You know, I’ve tried to not let it affect me too much,” Podlesny said. “I’m trying not to buy into stardom that much and just trying to live my daily life as I did before.”
That approach certainly worked marvelously before. If it’s possible to be unassuming and driven at the same time, Podlesny has it down pat.
This whole place-kicking phenomenon remains relatively new to him. Truly, Podlesny fancies himself a soccer player. He actually was doing much with that game when Kip Hall, the special-teams coach at Glynn Academy, convinced him he ought to try out as place-kicker for the football team his senior year in high school.
“(Hall) really stayed after him to come out,” Glynn Academy coach Rocky Hidalgo said. “We’re fortunate to have a great soccer program here, and Jack was a travel player, too. He had kind of dabbled in (place-kicking) before, but he thought of himself as a soccer player. Kip convinced him if he came out and stuck with it, he could be pretty good.”
The Red Terrors knew they had something special with that first distinguishable thump of the football in preseason practice. It was just matter of getting down the technique and timing, which came around quickly. Podlesny was named all-region after making nine of 10 field-goal attempts, 49 of 51 PAT tries and recording touchbacks on 55 of 61 kickoffs.
Since he was heading to UGA already on an academic ride, Podlesny was encouraged to try out for the Bulldogs as well. Georgia had a pretty good history with walk-on kickers, including the guy who held the job when Podlesny arrived.
By the time Podlesny showed up in 2018, Rodrigo Blankenship had achieved legendary status. The two soccer geeks bonded immediately. In fact, Podlesny can’t go much deeper than Blankenship, now of the Indianapolis Colts, when talk turns to great place-kickers he admires or hopes to emulate.
“I was a big Messi fan, a big Ronaldo fan (international soccer stars); football was the last thing on my mind,” Podlesny said. “So, now, I look up to Rod. He’s such a great kicker. And it’s probably past his time now because he just retired, but Adam Viniteri, too.”
Podlesny’s depth of knowledge is equally shallow when it comes to the Georgia-Clemson series (UGA’s season-opening opponent Sept. 4) and the storied role that kickers have played in it. Of course, he’s heard by now all about Kevin Butler and the “100,000-mile” game-winning kick (a reference to the legendary Larry Munson) that he made against Clemson in 1984. Podlesny knows now that it was close to 61 yards.
But he’s oblivious to great kicking history in the rivalry, which saw the Tigers’ David Treadwell beat the Bulldogs with game-winning kicks in 1986 and ‘87. And he’s completely unaware that Clemson missed a 46-yarder with four seconds remaining in 2002 that preserved a 31-28 victory for Georgia.
The truth is, Podlesny doesn’t spend a lot of time day-dreaming about game-winning kicks. He said that approach is why he wasn’t overwhelmed with the moment last New Year’s when he lined up from 53 yards away with 7 seconds remaining. The kick he drilled was dead down the middle and might’ve been good from 60.
Podlesny acknowledged that, from a confidence standpoint, there might be some innate psychological carryover this season after converting such an important kick eight months ago. But he said that would be the last thing he would be thinking about if he got a shot at another game-winner against Clemson.
“I try not to buy into that,” Podlesny said. “Preparing for a kick, it’s ‘same in, same out.’ You know, every kick is the same no matter the distance.”
Besides, Podlesny is not taking anything for granted.
Jared Zirkel was expected to be Georgia’s kicker at this point. Zirkel was the highest ranked placekicker in Texas and ranked No. 4 nationally when he signed with the Bulldogs in 2020. He reportedly has added quite a few pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame and has been wowing his teammates in practice with some tremendous range.
Podlesny and Zirkel compete for playing time on Woodruff Practice Fields every day.
“We push each other day in and day out,” Podlesny said. “Not only is it a competition, but we’re helping each other fix things. Whether it’s my swing or his jab step, we’re there for each other. I think it’s always good to have competition. Friendly competition does not hurt.”
Between the two of them, Georgia’s powerful, place-kicking legacy appears safe. The question now is whether there is more kicking history to be made this season.
Podlesny’s not sure about that. He just knows he’s not going to have to sweat out tuition, board and books this year.
“You know, it meant a lot,” he said of being placed on scholarship by coach Kirby Smart immediately after last season. “It was always a goal of mine once I got to UGA, to work my butt off and someday be able to get put on scholarship to pay for school. And now I’m here. So, I don’t know what the next steps going to be, but we’ll see.”
The folks down there on St. Simons are expecting more fireworks.
“I never underestimate him,” Hidalgo said of Podlesny. “I knew he had tremendous talent, tremendous ability. I think determination is what sets him apart from other guys. He just decided he wanted to follow Blankenship as the kicker, really focused on his craft for a year and he’s put himself in position to be an All-American caliber kicker.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com