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How a college football kicker became a crossover star

THE RELIABLE unreliability of #CollegeKickers has become one of the sport's most popular Internet jokes, and celebrity can be fleeting for a kicker who nails a game-winning field goal. But from the first moment TV cameras captured the thick black-rimmed rec specs sported with pride by Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship, it was clear that he was a different case. After the first game-winning field goal of his career, a 25-yarder in 2016 against Kentucky, he absentmindedly kept his helmet on throughout his on-field SEC Network interview. Before this year's Rose Bowl, he snapped a sideline photo with rapper Quavo, another Atlanta-area celebrity known to rock glasses. He has earned a shout out from Jimmy Kimmel and marquee billing on Georgia's 2018 media guide. Bulldogs fans know him as Hot Rod and have helped turn his Respect the Specs tagline into a rallying cry.

Now a junior, Blankenship took a winding path to the viral fame. A walk-on from Sprayberry High in Marietta, Ga., he redshirted his first year and didn't win the starting job until the fourth game of 2016. When the season ended his father, Ken, went public with his frustration that coach Kirby Smart had not yet put Rodrigo on scholarship. Smart rewarded Blankenship with a full ride in early September, a few days before he hit the go-ahead 30-yarder in a 20--19 win at Notre Dame that put Georgia on its playoff trajectory.

With the Bulldogs within sniffing distance of their first national title since 1980, Blankenship was a bespectacled vision in crunch time. He drilled a 55-yarder just before halftime of the Rose Bowl semifinal that cut Oklahoma's lead to 14 and laid the groundwork for a second-half comeback. Then he hit a 51-yarder in OT of the national championship game against Alabama, giving Georgia a brief lead before Tua Tagovailoa's heroics.

Last year Blankenship connected on 20 of 23 tries, and while those two playoff kicks were his first conversions from 50-plus yards, leg strength has never been an issue. Trying to drum up FBS interest on the kicking camp circuit, he hit a 60-yard field goal against the wind with then Georgia coach Mark Richt watching from the stands. With thousands more eyes on him this season, the nation's most interesting specialist is just tapping into his power.