Spring football: Georgia’s proud place-kicking legacy up for grabs

georgia football-kicking battle-kirby smart

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Georgia kicker Jared Zirkel hopes to win the starting job, but he will have competition. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Georgia opens spring practice March 14. The Bulldogs will do so for the first time in history as back-to-back defending national champions. Following is the first in an eight-part series breaking down each position group as the competition for playing time in 2023 begins with the 15 practices over 32 days. The spring session will culminate with the annual G-Day intrasquad game April 15 at Sanford Stadium.


ATHENS — Georgia scored a lot of points during its incredible run to the 2022 national championship. But one player accounted for almost 25% of those 616 points.

That was place-kicker Jack Podlesny.

Affectionately known as “J-Pod” within the Bulldog Nation, Podlesny was the latest in a long, proud tradition of powerful and prolific-scoring kickers at Georgia. His 151 points last season are the most scored by a Georgia kicker in school history. So were his 137 points the season before.

Granted, a bunch of those points last season came on point-after-touchdown kicks when Georgia logged a record 77 TDs. But the point remains – pun intended – that Podlesny was a dependable kicker.

And now he’s gone. The St. Simons native is preparing to ply his trade in the NFL. So, there will be a priority this spring for the Bulldogs to determine who will take “J-Pod’s” place.

There is no shortage of candidates. The list starts with the kicker thought to be the heir apparent – or at least recruited to be that – and that’s Jared Zirkel.

Depending upon which recruiting service one references, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Zirkel was rated as high as the No. 3 place-kicker in the country when he signed with the Bulldogs out of Tivy High in Kerrville, Texas, in 2020. But he hasn’t gotten much action since.

Zirkel made the only field goal he has attempted as a Bulldog – a 21-yarder in a blowout of South Carolina early last season. He also has kicked off five times, including three against Vanderbilt last season and one against TCU in the national championship game. All resulted in touchbacks, so it appears that duty is in safekeeping.

But if coach Kirby Smart has demonstrated anything in his seven seasons at the helm, it’s that no starting job is assured. And he’s tough on kickers in particular.

Podlesny shared at the end of last season how Smart loved to put pressure on his kickers during practice. The coach often placed the responsibility of whether the team would have to run post-practice sprints on a kicker making a long field goal at the end of a hard day of scrimmaging.

Preferring more conditioning for his troops, Smart would yell, clap and whistle and do whatever he could to distract the kickers in the moment. In the process, though, Smart also was producing heroes for his position players when the kickers came through. Podlesny almost always did that in practice and, more important, in games.

Such toughness is formed primarily through competition. Zirkel and everybody else in the Butts-Mehre football complex knows that Smart is not going to hand the job to him only because he’s a returning letterman.

During spring practice, Zirkel will compete with redshirt freshman Henry Bates, among others. Bates joined the team last year as a preferred walk-on from Waycross. And the stakes will get ramped up considerably this summer when Peyton Woodring joins the competition.

Woodring happened to be the No. 1-rated kicker when he signed with the Bulldogs out of Lafayette, Louisiana, in December. Woodring set the Louisiana record with a 60-yard boot last fall.

Podlesny handicapped the competition while speaking to reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last week.

“I think competition breeds success, and it’s going to be a fair competition,” Podlesny said. “I think Zirkel is going to compete his butt off this spring and is going to work hard. But I think Peyton Woodring coming in is good, and he’s going to give them a run for his money. At the end of the day, I’m sure (Georgia) is going to make the right decision.”

The Bulldogs clearly did with Podlesny.


  • Returning starters: P Brett Thorson (6-2, 210, So.), SN William Mote (6-2, 230, Sr.), PR Ladd McConkey (6-0, 185, Jr.)
  • All eyes on: PK Jared Zirkel (6-3, 185, Jr.)
  • Outlook: Georgia obviously was an awesome team last season, as evidenced by its perfect record and more-crowded trophy case. But if there was one area the Bulldogs could have performed better during the 15-0 run, it’s in the area of special teams. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Bulldogs ranked 49th in the nation when it comes to overall special-teams efficiency (0.12). How that rating is arrived at is complicated, but for the sake of comparison, South Carolina had the nation’s top mark in 2022 at 1.44. It’s not hard to figure out that Georgia could immediately improve in returns. Georgia was sure-handed but not necessarily dynamic with Kearis Jackson and McConkey splitting punt-return duties last season. McConkey averaged 12.31 yards, but with a chronic knee issue and burgeoning role in the offense, he may want to pass the torch. Fellow wideout Mekhi Mews is the only other returning player with an attempt with one for 21 yards. Kickoff returns almost are a thing of the past. Running back Daijun Edwards (two returns, 37 yards) is the only letterman who handled the responsibility besides Jackson (18-391) last season. Georgia has not had a TD in the returns game the past two seasons. ... Though he jokingly complained about getting enough opportunities last season, Australian punter Thorson proved he can be a defensive weapon in his first season of American football. He punted only 36 times in 15 games (2.4 pg) but averaged a hardy 45 yards on the nose on those, with only one touchback all season. And no one will soon forget his 75-yard punt that rolled out on the 1-yard line and turned the tide against Tennessee. Georgia will have to break in a new holder for placement kicks with quarterback Stetson Bennett’s graduation. Considering last season’s results, look for that job to remain in the QB group.
  • Up next: Offensive line