Walsh pulls for kickers

ATHENS – Growing up in south Florida, Blair Walsh always liked football. He just didn't absorb the game like most other fans.

He didn't root for one team or even cheer for a high-scoring game. If it was a third-down situation inside the red zone, he pulled for the defense no matter who was playing.

He never parked himself in front of the television for games either, but when the special teams ran on to the field, he was glued to his seat.

"I'll wait until I see the kicker, and be like, ‘Oh man, I've got to watch this,' " Walsh said. "I'll be rooting for the field goals."

It's not that Walsh doesn't appreciate the nuance of the game. He just has a particular affinity for the little guys who don't tackle often.

"I'm that guy in (the video game) Madden who drafts a kicker in the third round," Walsh said. "That's me."

Rooting for the kicker is in his blood. He grew up watching battles between Florida State and Miami that always seemed to come down to a final kick. He watched the 2006 Orange Bowl riveted as the Seminoles and Penn State exchanged pressure-packed field-goal attempts. He built a reputation in high school as one of the nation's top kickers after booting two field goals from 59 yards.

"Any time the kicker's involved in the game, that's fun for me," Walsh said. "I always watch that before anything else on the field."

As Georgia gets set for a run at a national championship this season, however, Walsh won't be the only football fan in Athens paying close attention to the kicker.

Walsh enters the season as the Bulldogs' only scholarship kicker, and he has some big shoes to fill.

For the past three years, Brandon Coutu handled kicking duties for Georgia, and he set a lofty standard. Coutu was as automatic as they come – converting on 51 of 64 field goals and all 109 extra-point tries in his career. He ranks among the top six all-time in Georgia's history in points, field goals and extra points, and he tied the school mark for longest field goal.

Walsh, the true freshman, has never attempted a kick during a game, but he will still be expected to carry on the tradition set by Coutu. That pressure, however, is what drew Walsh to Georgia in the first place.

"My final decision, yes that had something to do with it, but I would have been content coming here, playing behind Brandon, then getting my time," Walsh said. "The key thing is I wanted to play."

It didn't take long for Walsh to ratchet up those expectations even higher.

Over the summer, rumors spread among fans that Walsh was booting field goals in excess of 65 yards. The kid had a leg, for sure, and he wasn't interested in squashing any of those rumors.

"That stuff's all for fun," Walsh said. "You just do that in the side practice field when you're feeling warmed up."

Head coach Mark Richt was less concerned about the impressive practice kicks and more concerned about keeping Walsh healthy for the start of the season, so the long field goals were quickly put to rest by the coaching staff.

That was lesson No. 1 for Walsh on the differences between being a high school phenom and an SEC kicker.

"You can't go out there and overkick your leg because that doesn't help you," Walsh said. "You've got to stay fresh. Just memory drills, swing your leg up the line. If you're out there trying to kick 100 balls a day, you're going to be even more sore than you already are."

That's a tough lesson for the guy who thinks kicking is the most exciting part of a football game. He loves impressive kicks. The team, on the other hand, just wants consistency.

Despite Walsh's penchant for fantastic plays, Richt said Walsh has been pretty reliable, too. Walsh's kicks are picture-perfect coming off his foot – with an end-over-end spin Richt said is necessary for accuracy. He hasn't always put the ball between the uprights, but his form is nearly perfect.

"He's stroking it very well," Richt said. "He's still got to be a little more accurate, but he's got great fundamentals to be a very accurate kicker."

Walsh spends practice with the rest of the punters and kickers, waiting for his turn to show off. When his opportunity comes, coaches aren't spending an hour watching field goals, so that accuracy is even more important. Each kicker may get three or four chances at field goals, and even a single miss could mean the difference between playing time and a seat at the far end of the bench.

As Walsh sees it, it's the perfect preparation for game day.

"It's a perfectionist position, that's for sure," Walsh said. "Your misses, you can't have a miss and work around it. Everything's got to be on point. It's a lot of pressure."

On the field, Walsh wants that spotlight on him. But he's also in the unique position to know everything a kicker goes through when all eyes are focused elsewhere.

That might be why he has such respect for the others who fill that role. He's learning firsthand what it takes to earn the job and, at the same time, what it takes to keep it.

"I try to keep in mind what my role is on this team," Walsh said. "I am a freshman, and I need to perform well. I really need to prove myself. Nothing's going to be handed, that's for sure."

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