ATHENS — There was criticism from all circles, including from his head coach, following Blair Walsh’s struggles as a freshman.
Another place-kicker, junior college transfer Brandon Bogotay, was brought in to compete for Walsh’s job.
One year into his career, Walsh was already being overlooked by fans anxious to turn the page after a season of problems with kickoffs.
But none of that was what motivated Walsh last offseason. It wasn’t the criticism or the competition that drove him to get better.
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“I worked long and hard during the offseason before (Bogotay) even came here,” Walsh said. “I still had the same work ethic, I still had the same mind-set, but it’s the second time around now, and I know what to expect.”
It didn’t take the challenges of last season to motivate Walsh. It took those challenges to give him the perspective he needed to push himself beyond last year’s struggles.
The hard work has paid off, and Walsh has quickly turned from scapegoat to star, connecting on 13 of his 14 field-goal attempts — including a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond 50 yards — and he leads the SEC in touchbacks with 14. Along with punter Drew Butler, who leads the NCAA in punting average, Walsh has given Georgia one of the most dynamic kicking crews in the country.
“Butler and Walsh both just did a fantastic job of deciding that they want to be great at what they do,” head coach Mark Richt said. “They got focused, they worked their tail off, and they could be the best tandem in the country. They’re playing that good right now, and they’re both sophomores.”
For Walsh, the turnaround started with some tweaks to his routine.
During the offseason, he shortened his steps, worked on a more fluid kicking motion, and he spent hours aiming for a more consistent approach.
But the physical side of the kicking game was never his biggest obstacle. It was the mental approach that needed the most work, and he said that has improved by leaps and bounds this season.
“Mentally, it’s all about experience,” Walsh said. “It’s the same with throwing a rookie quarterback in there. It’s experience and you know what to expect. You don’t get so down on certain things. What bugged me last year won’t bug me this year.”
The experience created confidence. Confidence created success. Success created more confidence. It became a self-fulfilling process, and Walsh has ridden the tide of big kicks to become one of the conference’s top kickers.
“I think I’ve gotten in much more of a groove this season, I’ve gotten in more of a rhythm,” Walsh said.
While the field goals have been nearly flawless, it’s Walsh’s work on kickoffs that has impressed his coach.
As a freshman, Walsh too often botched the ball placement on directional kicks, booting several out of bounds at key moments in the game. With an immensely strong leg, Walsh wondered why he couldn’t simply boom kicks into the end zone — an inquiry repeated by many frustrated fans.
But with experience came an acceptance of his role, Richt said, and that has led to a fresh attitude about kickoffs.
“I think in the beginning he was a little — maybe curious is a nice way of saying it — why would you want a ball kicked this way, kicked in a certain spot,” Richt said. “But I think now he understands how important it was, and I think he resigned himself to knowing that’s what it takes.”
That’s what this year has been all about for Walsh. More than redemption, he simply wanted a second chance. More than revamping his mechanics, he simply needed to tweak his mind-set.
And while last year’s experience taught him some valuable lessons about failure, this season has given him the confidence he needs to continue his success.
“I’ve experienced the ups and the downs last year, and I know what it feels like to miss a kick, and I know what it feels like to make a kick,” Walsh said. “That helped this year because I knew how to handle it when it comes along, and I think a year of experience has helped for sure.”
Georgia defensive end Montez Robinson was named the SEC’s defensive lineman of the week after racking up five tackles and two sacks last week against Tennessee Tech… The kickoff time for the Bulldogs’ Nov. 21 date with Kentucky has been set for 7:45 p.m.