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Loran Smith: Former UGA kicker Walsh among NFL’s hottest rookies

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —

Loran Smith: Former UGA kicker Walsh among NFL's hottest rookies
Staff

Blair Walsh is the hottest and most productive rookie placekicker in the NFL. Like Casey Stengel was wont to say if there was any doubt about hard-and-fast statistics, “You could look it up.”

Sunday, while playing against the Detroit Lions — who were quarterbacked by Walsh’s onetime teammate Matthew Stafford — the Vikings’ placekicker continued his unbroken streak for extra points, kicked four field goals, and powered every kickoff into the end zone for touchbacks.

A placekicker earns his keep by making field goals and extra points, but when he eliminates kick returns, he is giving his team an extra advantage when it comes to field position — no small thing in the game plan for winning games.

As Walsh dressed following victory, Texan Cullen Loeffler, the Vikings’ long snapper, smiled to a Georgia visitor and said, “Blair is something else. We would like to thank you Bulldogs for sending him to us.”

The next day, throughout the Vikings’ facilities, players and staff gushed high praise in regard to Blair’s performances. He is doing something very good for his team, to put it in locker room vernacular.

Accuracy, which leads to production, keeps a kicker employed, but that bonus of touchback consistency heightens his value and is contract insurance. Already, Walsh has established four new team records and is within reach of several others:

• Most kickoff touchbacks in a game, 7.

• Most kickoff touchbacks in a season, 41 and counting.

• Most field goals by a rookie, 23 and counting.

• Consecutive games with field goals of 50-plus yards, 3.

He could break the rookie record for points in a season. Walsh has 90 points with six games left, which makes Randy Moss’s total of 106 points in 1998 well within reach.

Against Jacksonville, in his debut, he kicked a 55-yard field goal to tie the game and then a 38-yarder for an overtime victory. The 55-yard kick is a yard shy of the longest kick in Vikings history, which he likely will soon break. For sure, the Vikings coaches have the confidence to give him opportunity within 60 yards. He leads the NFL in field goal percentage (.958) among kickers with at least 20 field goal attempts.

The 6-4 Vikings believe they are gaining momentum as the league moves toward the playoffs. Walsh is doing his part, making good on 23 of 24 field goal attempts. A native of Boca Raton, Fla., Walsh experienced his first snow after the victory over the Lions as harsh weather looms. He has talked to former Bulldogs kicker Kevin Butler about the windy conditions at Soldier Field, where Walsh will play next.

In the next year, he expects to check out the winds of the new TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, where the Vikings will play their home games in 2014, as the Mall of America at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome will be torn down and replaced.

Following an early morning workout, Walsh talked about the frustration of the slump that occurred in his last season at Georgia and what he did to reestablish kicking power and consistency. “Mainly, I was rushing things and slowed everything down. Then spending time with the Vikings special teams coach, Mike Priefer, and regaining my confidence enabled me to get back on track.”

Walsh compares kicking to golf. “There are so many moving parts, one little thing can go wrong and it messes up the entire swing. Place kicking is the same.”

Watching him at work, you would conclude that no kicker in the NFL is currently hitting a football better than Blair Walsh.

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