Rodrigo Blankenship wants to land each kickoff in the end zone and openly takes blame when his efforts don't result in a touchback.
Through three games, Blankenship is 13-of-18 on kickoffs, which is sixth-best in the SEC. He was perfect on touchbacks against Appalachian State and Samford but went 1-for-5 at Notre Dame. When Blankenship is unable to prevent a return, Georgia's coverage unit has been quick to squander any momentum. Blankenship said his coverage unit is full of “bad dudes” helping him out.
Against the Fighting Irish, C.J. Sanders caught a kickoff at the 4-yard line with hopes of making moves to gain field position. But there came receiver Jayson Stanley, racing down the field and wrapping up Sanders at the 13.
“I don't think people give Jayson Stanley enough credit,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “If you go back and watch the tape, the guy has been dominant in coverage. Jayson has been all over it.”
Stanley has come up with a number of key plays for the Bulldogs on special teams and has embraced this role after coming to Georgia in 2015 as a four-star wide receiver.
In addition to defending kickoffs with starters such as Lorenzo Carter, Roquan Smith and Deandre Baker, Stanley is also on the punt coverage team.
Punter Cameron Nizialek, a graduate transfer who landed with Georgia for a one-year stint, said Stanley and the other gunners bring a different element compared to what he was used to at Columbia.
“Mecole (Hardman) and Jayson Stanley are probably two of the fastest guys I've ever seen,” Nizialek said. “Having those guys on my punt team is huge. Even if I hit a bad punt, those guys are right down there in their face.”
Through three games, Georgia's punt unit ranks second-best in the nation at -4 yards on three return opportunities.
Nizialek has averaged 44.3 yards per punt, with the a long of 57 yards last Saturday against Samford. The Ivy League product is essentially a one-year rental for the Bulldogs as Nizialek will finish his masters' program in kinesiology after the fall semester.
Therefore, Nizialek wants to maximize his results in hopes of getting an NFL opportunity in the near future.
“I'd say I'm doing all right, but would like to get a little bit better,” Nizialek said. “There's room to improve, even though I'm excited about how I've been doing. I have been doing better in practice, so I want to keep that rolling.”
After an 8-5 campaign in 2016, Smart was blatant in publicizing the need for special teams improvement. In addition of bringing in student assistant and former Georgia place-kicker Kevin Butler last season, Georgia hired Scott Fountain from Auburn as a special teams analyst in June.
Through the spring and preseason, the Bulldogs prioritized special teams and Smart has been pleased with his team's results thus far. In regards to coverage, Smart believes the real challenge will come during Saturday's conference opener against Mississippi State when “one comes out (of the end zone).”
While awaiting that test, major contributors on the unit have lofty expectations after noticing significant progress and intensified pursuit.
“It has been crazy to see the improvement on the coverage units,” Smith said. “We want to be one of the top special teams units in the nation, so we're practicing hard every day.”