ATLANTA -- The 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship is expected to a close, low-scoring affair. Alabama is a four-point favorite and the oddsmakers have the total set at 45. For fans of the No. 4 Crimson Tide and No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs, it's going to be four quarters of nerves as each snap between these two elite SEC programs could potentially be the one to make or break a national championship.
In games like these, the outcome can often be traced back to kicks made -- and kicks missed.
That brings Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship squarely into focus as we count down the hours until Monday night's kickoff in Atlanta. The redshirt sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, was a U.S. Army All-American in high school, and while he had scholarship offers to play elsewhere, chose to join the Bulldogs as a preferred walk-on in 2015.
That walk-on status became a point of contention for Blankenship's parents, who wrote a joint email to the Seth Emerson of DawgNation and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2017 to vent frustration after being told that a scholarship would not be available until the following fall, and even the scholarship wasn't guaranteed. Blankenship won the job as the team's placekicker during the 2016 season as a redshirt freshman. He was then selected to the All-SEC Freshman team and led the team in scoring.
"Many observers would argue, of course, that Rodrigo had just as much to do with UGA's success as any offensive, defensive or special teams teammates who are on scholarship -- and certainly more to do with that success than the numerous scholarship players who do not play at all," his parents wrote in the letter, published on Dawg Nation. "Isn't it difficult to rationalize having scholarship players sitting on the bench every game and a starter actually helping to win games on the field remaining a walk-on? And yet here Rodrigo is, an All-SEC performer who just triggered his tuition payment for spring semester."
Today, Blankenship cites winning the job in 2016 as one of his proudest moments as a Bulldog. He called it a high point that allowed him to look back but also put his head down "and keep grinding, grinding, grinding." With every kick, Blankenship became even more confident in his skills. Establishing a "mental muscle memory" that keeps him centered at times when others might begin to doubt their own abilities.
"I think that for kickers and punters especially, confidence has to come from mental muscle memory," Blankenship said. "Just building up that memory over time, especially when you've been kicking for a long time like I have. It comes from thousands of reps that you've taken in practice and hundreds of reps that you've taken in games. Knowing that you've put together a body of work that you can be proud of, that's where it comes from."
The next turning point for Blankenship was when coach Kirby Smart broke the news that he was being put on scholarship. Smart told Blankenship the good news on the Thursday prior to the Notre Dame. It was mostly kept a secret. Blankenship told his girlfriend and put in a call to his parents to let them know the good news.
"Cloud nine," Blankenship said Saturday.
College football fans who hadn't gotten to know and love the bespectacled placekicker learned to "respect the specs" by the end of that weekend. Blankenship hit the game-winning kick to beat Notre Dame in South Bend, and after the game in the locker room, Smart broke the news to the team and the rest of the world that "Hot Rod" was going to be a scholarship player from here on out for Georgia.
Blankenship understands that a lot of the attention granted to him comes from being one of the few football players to wear protective glasses on the field. He's quick to mention the Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman among those in other sports in his camp, and though he's tried contacts a few times, doesn't appear to be pressed to make any changes. After all, things have been going well recently for the Bulldogs' kicker.
In the Rose Bowl, Blankenship hit a Rose Bowl-record 55-yard field goal just before halftime that sent a jolt of energy up and down the Georgia sideline. It gave the team some momentum heading into the locker room that carried over into the second half as the Bulldogs rallied back and forced overtime against the high-scoring Sooners. Blankenship's career-long at that point was a 49-yard field goal against Mississippi State, and he had told the coaches his mark for the game was 54 yards.
Rodrigo Blankenship just set a Rose Bowl record with this 55-yard field goal! Georgia trails 31-17 at halftime. pic.twitter.com/dkZf2rN7Mk— DawgNation (@DawgNation) January 1, 2018
The winning play might have been Lorenzo Carter's field goal block, and the winning score was Sony Michel's touchdown run, but without Blankenship, the Bulldogs might not be here in Atlanta competing for the national championship.
In both the Notre Dame win and the Rose Bowl, Blankenship bounced back from an early miss with game-changing kicks. Overcoming adversity is no big deal for a kicker who has built up confidence grinding towards his goal, and while there's surely still plenty of high points left in his Georgia career, it's hard to argue that there will be one greater than winning a national championship at the end of this tumultuous 2017-18 season.