Despite Georgia losing in upset fashion to Vanderbilt on Saturday, one Bulldogs player undeniably had the best performance of his career. It can also be said that without his play, the Bulldogs wouldn’t have even been in striking distance of the Commodores.
Georgia redshirt freshman Rodrigo Blankenship has been part of an inconsistent duo of place-kickers for the Bulldogs this season, but he proved his ability in the team’s 17-16 loss. Blankenship’s aim was true on his three field goal attempts, nailing a 45-yard field goal late in the first quarter before tacking on two more from 22 and 36, respectively.
The game appeared destined for Blankenship to get a shot at a game-winner late, but the Bulldogs’ unsuccessful run on fourth-and-1 from the Vanderbilt 41-yard line ended any chance of that scenario.
Still, Blankenship’s efforts showed that not all hope is lost as far as the Bulldogs’ kicking game is concerned.
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“I had a pretty good week of practice this week,” Blankenship said. “I made all my field goals with the team, and I think I missed maybe one or two when we were doing individual work with just the specialists. I was feeling pretty good and that I’d put together a pretty solid week of practice. I just tried to make sure it carried over into the game.”
Blankenship’s first field goal of the afternoon was one where he could truly demonstrate if he could come through for the Bulldogs. Prior to Saturday’s game, Blankenship’s longest field goal was 27 yards, which was his only successful field goal through the first six games. For that matter, the longest for any Georgia place-kicker in 2016 stood at a meager 29 yards.
Enter Blankenship, who drilled the 45-yarder and had room for even more.
“I just kind of let it rip,” Blankenship said. “It was a good, clean hit. That always helps. When you’ve got a little bit deeper kick to start your day, that always helps going forward.”
Blankenship’s success on the first-quarter kick, coupled with his accuracy in practice, gave Georgia head coach Kirby Smart a viable option he has lacked in the first five games late in the first half. With the Bulldogs at the Vanderbilt 37-yard line and only two seconds showing on the game clock, Smart trotted Blankenship out on the field to attempt a 54-yard field goal.
The kick never happened, however, as the Commodores rattled off consecutive timeouts and placed a returner in the end zone with the hopes of pulling off a return on a miss. Instead, the Georgia offense returned to the field and attempted a desperation pass that landed incomplete.
But the fact the attempt was even considered spoke volumes about Blankenship’s improvement.
“I know y’all questioned it all week, but he really has kicked well in practice,” Smart said. “He was like 16-of-17 this week in practice. We were really confident in Rodrigo, which is why I was sitting there thinking, ‘Could he hit the 54?’ It was out of his range, and when I saw the returner back there, that’s a no-no.”
While Blankenship’s field goals were accurate, there was still room for improvement. His early kickoffs in Saturday’s game lacked the power necessary for a touchback, particularly his opening kick, which was caught on the goal line. Darrius Sims ripped off a 95-yard return on the kick, which set up the Commodores with great field position and preceded a 1-yard touchdown run by Ralph Webb.
Blankenship responded by sending his second kickoff about two yards deep in the end zone before delivering three touchbacks on his final three kicks. The first kick, however, loomed large with Blankenship after the fact.
“If I had hit that first kickoff like I had hit some of those at the end, they wouldn’t have had such great field position to start out,” Blankenship said. “I think that that almost set the tone for the game a little bit, opening up with a huge return like that. There’s always going to be ways for me to have better days and start faster.”
Smart also touched on the role that opening kickoff from Blankenship played.
“Kickoff coverage has been a theme all year,” Smart said. “We’ve got to improve on that, but some of that’s ball placement. Rodrigo hit two or three home runs out there on the kickoffs, (but) we need consistency in that out of Rodrigo.”
With a clear look of what needs to get better, Blankenship took the first step in being a player Georgia can rely on for points. His hot-and-cold nature of kicks left the Bulldogs hesitant to turn it over to him, instead opting several times to let the offense attempt to convert on fourth down or throw for the end zone.
The performance by Blankenship doesn’t guarantee anything, but it should at least mean more attempts from the redshirt freshman moving forward.
“Kickers need to have short-term memory as far as play-by-play is concerned, but if you have that confidence and it builds up from a good performance in a game, it can carry over,” Blankenship said.