Georgia’s Jack Podlesny aims to be ready if it comes down to kicks

ATHENS — There’s a 25% chance of rain Saturday. That’s an important bit of information for Georgia’s Jack Podlesny and the other members of the Bulldogs’ elite kicking units.

Time to break out the “toys.”

Nothing if not prepared, Georgia’s kicking units do everything they can to be ready for whatever conditions might await them. So, if they think it might be wet during the game, they make sure they’re practicing with everything wet.

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“We’ve got water guns; we’ve got water bottles,” said the Georgia kicker known as “Pod.” “We’ve got buckets of water we soak the footballs in. There are a lot of scenarios.”

It would not be an ideal situation for what will be the biggest game in the history of Sanford Stadium, based on rankings, on Saturday. The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 SEC) will play host to the nation’s recently anointed No. 1 team in Tennessee (8-0, 4-0). Though Georgia remains an eight-point favorite as of Thursday, these are two closely matched teams.

For that reason, it could come down to a kick to win the game or extend it. That’s a scenario Podlesny is comfortable with. So, is Tennessee’s Chase McGrath.

McGrath was, of course, the hero of Tennessee’s 52-49 win over then-No. 3 Alabama on Oct. 15 in Knoxville. His 40-yard field goal, ever so slightly redirected by a Crimson Tide fingertip, knuckled through for the winning points as time expired.

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“Pretty impressive,” Podlesny said.

Indeed. But most people handicapping Saturday’s game would put the check for special-teams superiority in Georgia’s column.

McGrath, a fifth-year senior from Newport Beach, Calif., is an excellent kicker with a strong leg. He made a 51-yarder – the first over-50 make of his career – against Pitt in a 34-27 overtime win earlier this season. He also made 4 of 5 attempts to earn SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in Tennessee’s win over LSU.

But McGrath has missed his other three attempts of 46 or more yards this season and stands at 11 of 15. He has also missed two PATs, including one in the Alabama game.

Podlesny, also a fifth-year senior, is perfect on 41 PATs and 14 of 16 on field goals this season. He has missed his two longest attempts, including one from 51 yards. His longest kick this season is 42 yards.

However, Podlesny has made some huge kicks in his career. Topping the list is the 53-yarder to beat No. 8 Cincinnati in the final minute of the 2020 Peach Bowl. He also made a 49-yarder in the CFP Championship game in January.

SEC kickers generally are a tight fraternity. Podlesny has trained with Alabama’s Will Reichard, who missed a potential 50-yard game-winner with 15 seconds remaining against Tennessee.

“I corresponded with him a little bit (after the game),” Podlesny said of Reichard. “I train with him a lot and wanted to see how he was feeling. I don’t know the Tennessee kicker very well, so haven’t talked to him, but I’m sure he was living it up after the game.”

Thanks to their prolific offenses, neither Tennessee nor Georgia punts much. They’re tied for the fewest punts in the SEC with 18 apiece. The Bulldogs’ Brett Thorson’s net is 39.7, and he hasn’t recorded a touchback all season. The Vols are netting 36.7 yards on punts.

Statistically, Tennessee gets the edge on returns. The Vols have averaged 6 yards more on punt returns and less than a yard on kickoff returns. Georgia’s Ladd McConkey has averaged 10.3 yards on 14 punt returns, while Tennessee’s Dee Williams has been good for 20.4 yards on eight, with one 58-yard return.

“I think it’s just going to come down to who performs best on Saturday,” Podlesny said of the special-teams matchup. “It’s a one-day-at-a-time thing. You can’t really look at past performances or else you’re looking in the past. So, it’s a present mindset.”

The Bulldogs haven’t relied on Podlesny much lately, but he has come through when they’ve needed him. He was named the SEC’s Special Teams Player of the Week twice, when he went 3-for-3 versus Kent State and when he was 4-for-4 in Georgia’s tightest game of the season against Missouri. He scored a career-high 15 points in a 33-0 win over Samford.

He said he’s been “really happy” with the snap-hold-kick operation this season with snapper Payne Walker and holder Stetson Bennett.

“I feel good,” Podlesny said. “There are balls that go through the goal posts and you still wish you’d hit them better. But I think I’m improving, and that’s all I can ask for. I don’t want to stay the same. There’s always room for improvement.”

Should Podlesny have the opportunity to make a game-winning kick Saturday, it arguably would be the biggest of his career.

Mentally, he’s always preparing for that.

“I have a ritual where I try to visualize kicks laying in a bed in a dark room,” Podlesny said. “I close my eyes, hopefully don’t fall asleep, and try to picture myself if it’s an away game or Sanford Stadium, I step up, 38-yarder, 55-yarder, PAT, no different. That’s a big ritual of mine.”

Podlesny said he’d prefer it not come down to a kick for his team, which is winning by an average margin of 31.3 points. But having been in the situation before, he vows to be ready if it does, rain or shine.

“It definitely gives you a little more confidence going into games knowing you’ve been there before, made high-stakes kicks, especially playing at home,” Podlesny said. “You’ve got the Georgia fans behind you versus playing on the road. That’s a good feeling.”

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