Rodrigo Blankenship turned down a few offers and paid his way to attend Georgia. Why? “He’s rooted. He’s a rooted, diehard, red-and-black Georgia Bulldog.” He’s also a key reasons the Dawgs are playing for it all Monday night.
With Georgia preparing for its first national championship game in 37 years, many of the Bulldogs are doubtlessly battling distraction. But distraction is nothing new for sophomore kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. In his young UGA career, he’s dealt with joining the team as a walk-on rather than as a scholarship player elsewhere, with losing a competition for the starting kicking job, with regaining that job in mid-season, displaying all-freshman SEC form and still not getting a scholarship, keeping his job and making big kicks for a contender that became a CFP finalist, and eventually getting that elusive scholarship.
It’s been a long path, but Blankenship is right where he wanted to be.
Focus is a word that comes up often when Blankenship is discussed. Reflecting on the up-and-down nature of his time at Georgia, Blankenship’s former high school coach Billy Shackelford admits, “Many times kids are so disenfranchised or self-centered that they get their feelings hurt, and they drop their tail and run, but that’s not Rod’s style. He loves the University of Georgia, he loves his team, he loves his coaches.”
That love for Georgia football runs deep for Blankenship, who played for Shackelford at Sprayberry High in Marietta. Blankenship was kicking in the sixth grade, and football quickly moved from being part of his life to the center of his life. Shackelford remembered Blankenship undertaking multiple workouts per week while most of his other players were on spring break. Other stories of his work ethic abound.
Shackelford relates of one particular workout, “After (Rodrigo) kicking probably 150 footballs, his father Ken walked into the field house. I was trying to tell him — in a way that wasn’t offensive — look, I’m worried that you’re going to let your son kick his leg right off his body, overdo it, make him hate it. He looked at me, almost exhausted, and said, ‘Coach, I wish you’d tell him that. I’m doing this for him. He’s the one who wants to do it.'”
With the work ethic came results. Blankenship became a strong-legged star, known as “Legatron” by some, much-honored and respected on the summer kicking camp circuit. 247sports.com ended up ranking Blankenship as the seventh best kicker in the nation in his 2015 recruiting class. He was chosen for the U.S. Army All-American game.
There was no question where Blankenship’s ultimate dream destination was. While he attended kicking camps not only at UGA, but at schools like Florida, LSU and Ohio State, the high school football and soccer star knew where he wanted to be.
“It’s really cool, especially in the era where kids are almost free agents,” Shackelford said. “They’re always moving wherever the breeze takes them. He’s rooted. He’s a rooted, diehard, red-and-black Georgia Bulldog.”
No place Hot Rod would rather be
Unfortunately, in the kicking world, scholarships aren’t plentiful. And even for a player of Blankenship’s talents, the situation was difficult. When it came to full scholarship offers, Georgia wasn’t biting. Junior specialist Marshall Morgan was on scholarship already, and according to 247sports.com, scholarship offers for Blankenship came from UAB, Army, Navy and a host of FCS teams.
Coach Mark Richt did want Blankenship at Georgia, but the scholarship realities were tough.
Ken Blankenship did what any father — well, any father who took an active enough interest to be his son’s de facto kicking coach — might do. A retired teacher, the elder Blankenship picked up his retirement fund like a piggy bank and shook it around until enough money came for his son to pay his own way at Georgia.
“How many people have the maturity to do that, to turn down financial freedom to spend tens of thousands of dollars?” wondered Shackelford of Rodrigo. “But he could do what he wanted, and he stuck to it, and honestly, his patience is paying off for him and for Georgia.”
In 2015, Blankenship waited his time. His former UGA co-special teams coach, John Lilly, recalled Blankenship getting a look for kickoffs or possibly rugby-style punting before the decision was made to redshirt him.
In 2016, Morgan was graduated, and a new coaching staff was in Athens, led by Kirby Smart. Blankenship was competing for the starting kicking job. So was William Ham, a 2014 Georgia walk-on who had taken a season off from football. In Georgia’s annual Red-Black spring game, Blankenship, who was battling a leg issue, nailed a 46-yard field goal. Ham missed two kicks, booting one into his offensive line. Yet, when the season began, Ham was Georgia’s starting kicker.
But Ham struggled early, missing several short kicks. Finally, Blankenship, who had handled a few kickoffs, took over the placekicking duties in Week 4 against Ole Miss. The results were almost immediate and impressive.
Against Vanderbilt, Blankenship hit three field goals, and two weeks later, at Kentucky, he hit four, including a 49-yarder and a game-winner on the final play. He did a post-game interview after the Kentucky win with his helmet still on. A legend was born.
The unassuming looking kicker with the black Buddy Holly glasses and the scraggly beard became an Internet sensation. Blankenship was an overnight phenomenon on Twitter, where fans compared him to Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from Major League and hashtags like #HotRodForPres2K16 began to appear. Georgia didn’t just have a good kicker, they also had something of a counterculture football star.
For the season, Blankenship went 14-for-18, as well as converting all 26 extra point attempts. He was chosen for the All-SEC freshman team, and his story appeared to have a happy ending.
Or did it?
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Ken Blankenship has publicly contended that Richt told Blankenship that he would be placed on scholarship if he earned the starting kicking job. Of course, Richt is now coaching in sunny Coral Gables, Fla.
John Lilly, while admitting that he wasn’t a party to any discussions with Richt, recalled, “I don’t know that anyone ever said, ‘OK, you will get a scholarship after a year.’…. Generally speaking, it was Coach Richt’s philosophy that if somebody was doing a job as a walk-on, and they won it and were doing a great job with it, generally, they went on scholarship when one was available.”
In any case, Richt’s successor, Kirby Smart, was non-committal. Ken Blankenship basically said that the piggy bank had jiggled its last, and that if a scholarship wasn’t forthcoming, he couldn’t pay the bills. For a while, it looked like Blankenship might well have been on another team’s sideline in 2017.
But eventually — a few weeks into the fall of 2017 — a scholarship materialized. In Rudy-like fashion, Smart asked Blankenship to deliver the news to his teammates just after Rodrigo delivered a game-winning field goal in a crucial early-season victory at Notre Dame. The locker room celebrated for the second time that afternoon.
— UGA Football Live (@UGAfootballLive) September 10, 2017
Longest kick helps send Georgia to title game
Since then, all Blankenship has done is continue his superb play. He shed actual tears discussing his happiness over the scholarship situation with the media, and since, has made opposing fans shed a few. Blankenship is 17-of-20 on field goals this season and has converted all 61 extra points he attempted. He added a new weapon to his game, as 64 of his 89 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.
“They’ve done a great job of working with him and he’s done a great job of working to really improve himself,” Lilly said of Blankenship’s emergence with the Bulldogs. Following his time in Athens, Lilly moved on to coach tight ends for the L.A. Rams in 2016, and got to catch up with Blankenship before last week’s Rose Bowl.
“Obviously, like most people, I’m really proud of what he’s done,” Lilly said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
In the Rose Bowl last Monday, Blankenship was called on just before halftime with Georgia clinging to a faint hope of victory, trailing 31-14. A 55-yard field goal attempt was 6 yards longer than his UGA best. He had missed earlier, from 48 yards. Hot Rod’s kick cleared the bar with several yards to spare. Georgia, given new life on the field goal, never looked back.
“For him to make the longest kick of his career was obviously a huge play in the game,” Lilly said. “I don’t know if it’s gotten lost in the postgame, but to get three on the board when you had no chance to score. … That was a huge job by Rodrigo and those guys to be able to get it done.”
In so many ways, Georgia and Alabama is a battle of college football royalty. The best of the best will take the field in Atlanta on Monday night. But if the game ends up coming down to a kick from a guy who looks more like an indie rocker than a Pro Bowler, Georgia is in good hands. Or resting on a good leg.
It’s been a winding path that Rodrigo Blankenship has followed to become an Internet sensation and a starting kicker in the CFP championship game. But he’s ended up right where he wanted to be. Don’t be surprised if his kicks continue to do the same.