Blair Walsh returns to Athens to complete his degree after standout rookie year

Blair Walsh is returning to campus, but not to play between the hedges.

Genevieve Ross /AP
Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh (3) celebrates with teammates after kicking 37-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 30 in Minneapolis.

The former Bulldog kicker will resume a full-time student status at UGA this spring to fulfill final obligations for a degree in Speech Communications.

“It should be fun,” Walsh said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to Athens.”

Walsh will be one of the busiest men on campus this spring. In addition to his studies in Athens and offseason training with the Minnesota Vikings, Walsh will play in the NFL Pro Bowl, becoming the first rookie kicker to qualify for the league’s all-star game since Nick Folk in 2007.

Walsh said the one thing he’s looking forward to most about playing in Hawaii “is being around the best.”

“It’s like a ‘Dream Team’ on each side of the AFC and NFC,” he said. “It’ll be pretty cool to practice around all of those guys and look around and know that these are the best of the best — and that you’re one of them.”

Despite the many accolades of his young career, Walsh remains humble about his early success at the pro level. His senior season at Georgia — one in which he averaged a missed field goal per game (14 total) — is too close in the rearview mirror, he said.

It’s been a topsy-turvy 12 months for the Boca Raton, Fla., native. In last year’s Outback Bowl, his final game in red and black, Walsh missed two critical field goals as the Bulldogs fell to Michigan State. Going into the offseason, Walsh said he knew that the odds would be against him as he prepared for the next level.

“Obviously, I didn’t have the year I wanted to have,” Walsh said at Georgia’s Pro Day last March. “I’m just hoping a team takes a chance.”

The Vikings did, but on a gamble. After all, Minnesota already had a reliable kicker in Ryan Longwell, who hadn’t missed a game since his NFL debut in 1997. But Longwell wasn’t a part of Minnesota’s plan moving forward. The organization cut the 15-year veteran last May, paving the path for Walsh to become the team’s lone kicker.

In a moment where the pressure of solitude could have mounted, Walsh remained at ease.

“When they released him, it was really a surprise to me,” Walsh said. “But it gave me a nice bode of confidence. It spurred me on to prove (the Vikings) right. I wanted to show them that they were justified by using their sixth-round selection on me.”

He did just that.

Minnesota got Walsh at a bargain, compensating the former Bulldog just above the league’s minimum salary, making him among the lowest paid kickers in the NFL. But that didn’t stop Walsh from outkicking the competition in 2012. The rookie finished fourth in the league in field-goal percentage (92.1) despite kicking the third-most field goals this season with 38 attempts. Walsh was also responsible for the league’s sixth-longest kick this year (56 yards), but that didn’t land him in the NFL record books. What did was his consistency from long range — he made 10 in a row on attempts from 50 or more yards.

Walsh also kicked the Vikings to their first playoff appearance in three years with a game-winning field goal against the Green Pay Packers as time expired in the regular-season finale.

Minnesota was on the brink of elimination heading into its final game against the NFC North champion Green Bay. A loss would send the Vikings home. A win would force a rematch the next week in Green Bay.

Though Minnesota fell in that wild-card matchup six days later, Walsh said he enjoyed the experience of his first NFL playoff game. He also said the back-to-back games were the most monumental he’s ever played in, including those in red and black.

“I would only say that the playoff game was more important than (the bowl games or Southeastern Conference championship) because it’s the highest level of football,” Walsh said. “The SEC championship game is, in itself, one of the coolest atmospheres to play in, but when you’re at this level and you’re playing against the best competition in the world, there’s a different edge to it.”

Perhaps Walsh’s biggest edge this season, at least to his former Georgia teammates, was in fantasy football. The rookie led all kickers in most fantasy points notched this season with 165, according to ESPN’s standard scoring.

And despite now kicking on Sundays, Walsh still plays the virtual game as a channel to keep in touch with some of his buddies in Athens. His league’s contingent consisted of strictly special teams players, including former Bulldog punter and current Pittsburgh Steelers player Drew Butler.

“We have a nice, little, fun rivalry going,” Walsh said. “It was a great way to keep up with some old teammates.”

Walsh will get an even better chance to reacquaint with old friends this spring. He returned to Athens this week to begin his final semester as a UGA student.

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by Marc Weiszer

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