Kendrick, Podlesny and Bennett All Take Unique Journeys to Boost Bulldogs to National Crown

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Kendrick, Podlesny and Bennett All Take Unique Journeys to Boost Bulldogs to National Crown

With the possible exception of senior nose tackle Jordan Davis, who captured the Outland Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award, and junior linebacker Nakobe Dean, winner of the Butkus Award, Georgia’s 2021 national collegiate football champions were devoid of superstar players.

Rather, Kirby Smart’s sixth Bulldogs edition was comprised of talented football players who came together with just the right blend of team chemistry, a love for each other and an unrelenting work ethic that enabled this team to win a school-record 14 games enroute to the school’s first national crown since 1980, with the lone setback coming on an off night against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game … a team the Bulldogs would gain sweet revenge against in the January 10 CFP championship in Indianapolis.





The contributions to the sterling season came from every member of the ’21 team and here we detail the somewhat unique journeys of three Bulldog players – a transfer student and two walk-on players – who indeed played major roles in sparking Georgia to its biggest football victory in 41 years.

Kendrick makes the most of his one year at Georgia





Most Georgia fans are familiar with the story of Bulldog senior cornerback Derion Kendrick. As a freshman wide receiver at Clemson, Kendrick played for the Tigers against Alabama in the 2018 CFP National Championship Game. After being named Second Team All-ACC in 2019 after moving into the Clemson defensive backfield, Kendrick then earned All-ACC First Team honors in the 2020 football season.

But Kendrick’s playing days at Clemson would soon come to an end as he was dismissed from the Tiger team by head coach Dabo Swinney. Kendrick wouldn’t be without a team for long, however, as Georgia head coach Kirby Smart welcomed him as a member of the 2021 Bulldogs family.

The rest, as they say, is history. The 6-0, 190-pound cornerback from Rock Hill, South Carolina blossomed in Georgia’s defensive secondary and played a major role in the Bulldogs going a perfect 12-0 during the regular season and then stepped up his game even more in the CFP playoffs. In Georgia’s 34-11 win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal game, Kendrick was named Defensive MVP after he posted two interceptions and recorded five tackles. Kendrick also performed well in the Bulldogs’ 33-18 win over Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game in Indianapolis. Starting at cornerback in all 15 games as Georgia capped a 14-1 season, Kendrick had a team-high four interceptions on the year, to go along with 41 tackles. He was named to the All-SEC Second Team in both the Associated Press and Coaches’ voting.

So, you can bet that Kendrick’s mom, Shenekia McClinton, was simply ecstatic with her son’s one year spent in Athens, under the coaching of Smart and UGA defensive backfield coach Jahmile Addae.

“It’s totally overwhelming but I first just want to thank the University of Georgia and Kirby Smart and the entire coaching staff for welcoming DK and bringing him into the program and mentoring him. And I’ve seen a tremendous growth in him this year, just from being a better son, a better father, a better grandson and a better brother. So, it’s just not about the football aspect but overall just a better man so I’m nothing but proud of him.”

McClinton said whenever the family was having the conversation as to where Kendrick would next play football, the one word she wanted him to focus on was, dedication. 

“Regardless of where you go, whatever that atmosphere looked like, just be dedicated to yourself, be dedicated to your teammates,” she said. “And I’ve seen nothing but dedication in him from one week to the next. I didn’t think it would get better from one game to the next but he just continued to excel beyond my expectations … MVP of the Orange Bowl, two interceptions in that game. And we called that before the game,” McClinton said. “I’m the kind of person that I like to put things out in the universe – I like to call it before it even happens, just being able to pray with my son and let him know that nothing but God has brought him this far and just to see him prosper throughout this year is nothing short of amazing. And we can only give all grace to God – He has been the focal point through our life and throughout this entire season as DK ventures on to a new journey.

“So we’re just extremely proud of him and the city of Rock Hill is behind DK 100 percent, and we’re thankful for the overwhelming support.”

Shenekia McClinton says Derion is now ready to take the next step into professional football.

“He’s ready and I saw that even when I dropped him off at the airport that Saturday when he was leaving to go out to Texas for a training camp. He looked me in the eye and said ‘I’m ready’ and I said, ‘Son, go and make me proud!’ I know he’s in good hands and I know he’s going to do whatever it takes to excel on the next level.”

McClinton said being a part of the Bulldogs’ fan base this season made for memories she and Derion will never forget.

“The Georgia fans are absolutely tremendous,” she said. “No matter where I went, they always raved about how they love DK. They’re so glad he’s a part of the Bulldog Nation and they’re so glad our family is a part of the Dawg Nation. And it just made me feel very, very warm and made us feel like we were at home. We couldn’t have chosen a better program so Dawg Nation, we absolutely love you and we’re going down in history so that’s how I feel about the Dawg Nation!”

Jack Podlesny: From the soccer field to a clutch place-kicker at Georgia

A converted soccer player, Jack Podlesny of St. Simons Island wasn’t giving much thought to college football when he was handling the place-kicking, punting and kickoffs for the Glynn Academy football team in the fall of 2017. That, even though Podlesny was true on 9-of-10 field goal tries and 49-of-51 extra-point kicks that fall enroute to earning First Team All-Region status for the Red Terrors of Coach Rocky Hidalgo.

“Jack had no plans of playing college football, to be honest about it,” said Jack’s father, Ike Podlesny, who coached high school soccer at both Frederica Academy on St. Simons Island and at Glynn Academy in Brunswick. “So, he got accepted on an early decision to Georgia in October (as a student). So we’re in the middle of his senior year in high school football and he had a real good senior year, study year. In football, he made those 9-of-10 field goals and missed two extra points … one because of a bad snap and the other I think was blocked. So other than that, he made all his extra points and he also had a decent year punting, averaging about 41 yards a punt.”

Podlesny recalled the special teams coach at Glynn Academy, Kip Hall, kept telling Jack that he was capable of playing at the next level, if he desired to do so.

“And Jack was like ‘OK, yeah maybe,’ and I don’t think it really hit him at the time,” said Ike. “And then the last game against Lee County (in state 6-A semifinals) he has a really good game and it kind of puts him on the map. He made both his field goal attempts and all his extra points and all his kickoffs were through the end zone.”

At that game in Leesburg, a member of the Michigan coaching staff was present to look over a future Wolverine signee, Lee County defensive back Otis Reece.

 “And so Coach Partridge from Michigan, their linebackers coach, was at that game watching Otis,” said Podlesny. “And as things unfolded, he was watching Jack kick and in the middle of the game he’s texting the Michigan kicking coach and saying, ‘I don’t know who this kid is but please contact him because he’s good’ … or something like that. The next day after the game, which was a Saturday, Jack got up late in the morning and showed me his phone and said, ‘Dad, look who contacted me.’ It was a coach named Tyler Brown, the kicking coach at Michigan. So, he later called Jack about 1 in the afternoon and Jack was up in his room about an hour and then came down and said, ‘Dad, I really like this coach and he wants us to come up and visit.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’

With that, the Podlesny family made the trip to Ann Arbor, Mich. to check out the program and the Michigan campus.

“So, we went up in January to look at Michigan,” Ike Podlesny said. “We were up there about three days and had a really good visit – the staff was unbelievable. Coach Partridge talked to us a little bit and then Tyler took us around. He basically said we want your kid up here but they weren’t giving any scholarship help until he played. We hemmed and hawed about it but by the time we got back home, Georgia, Western Carolina, Georgia Tech and Mercer all called and then there were several little Division II schools that called. Jack, as I said, had already been accepted at Georgia. Apparently, Kip Hall, who played there, made some contact with the coaches at Georgia. So, we went up to Georgia and we really liked the facilities, we liked the coach and we talked with the special teams coach, Scott Fountain. So we had a good visit and we came back and it basically was down to Michigan and Georgia.”

 The young Podlesny went on a spring break trip in that spring of 2018 but not before he got a piece of advice from his mom, Elizabeth.

“My wife told him you’ve got to make a decision when you come back on where you’re going because it’s getting late in the ball game,” said Ike. “So, he called us in the middle of spring break and told us he was going to Georgia. He said he wanted to go to Georgia because it was close to home and you guys can come up to see me when you want, and if I went to Michigan it’s going to be a plane ride here and a plane ride there.”

In Athens, Podlesny was redshirted his first year on campus and was on the depth chart behind the record-breaking and ultra-popular Rodrigo Blankenship the first two seasons. “In his sophomore year, when Covid hit, he came home and said it’s either make or break for me with the kicking and he worked out really hard,” recalled the dad. “It was during Covid when for five or six weeks they sent them home. And so he went into summer camp that year in a good frame of mind and in good shape. Then Jack called me before their first game at Arkansas and said, ‘Dad, I’m the starting kicker.’”

And in that 2020 football season Between the Hedges, Jack Podlesny not only was Georgia’s starting place-kicker, he excelled at his job. Podlesny was true on 13-of-16 field goal attempts and made all 38 PAT kicks he tried. He won the Bulldogs’ Peach Bowl game against Cincinnati with a pressurized, career-long 53-yard field goal with just three seconds remaining, giving the Bulldogs a dramatic 26-24 win over the Bearcats. Podlesny also had two other field goals in that game and was named the Peach Bowl MVP and was also named to the AP All-Bowl Team that year. He was also a semi-finalist for the Lou Groza Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top place-kicker, as well as being named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

Then during the Bulldogs’ run to the CFP National Championship this season, the 6-0, 180-pound Podlesny picked up where he left off in 2020, converting 22 of 27 field goal attempts including a season-long 49-yard kick and another 24-yard field goal in the national championship win over Alabama. Podlesny’s two kicks provided Georgia’s only scoring in the first half as the Bulldogs trailed the Crimson Tide 9-6 at the halftime break.

“My wife couldn’t be prouder of Jack and what he’s accomplished at Georgia,” Ike Podlesny said. “It’s been very surreal. My wife has a hard time watching because of anxiety, with our son walking out there in the middle of everything. I think the difference between last year and this year was during the Covid year in 2020 there were just 18,000 to 22,000 people in the stands. That was kind of like a big high school game for him. So, this year I think it was a big adjustment for Jack because he’s going from kicking in front of 18,000 to 20,000 fans to kicking in front of 70,000 to 85,000 to 100,000 people. And he had to make a big adjustment to that mentally because that’s a big difference.

“The Peach Bowl kick, Scott Cochran, who’s now the special teams coach, his big thing is you take every kick like it’s the same kick, hit the ball with the exact same timing as hard as you can. In pressure situations, just slow your breathing down, sort of relax and let your body do what it’s supposed to do.

“This is about Jack and his journey so far and what he’s done, and he’s enjoying the ride right now,” said Podlesny.

Jack Podlesny graduated with honors in the Fall commencement exercises and has started his classes for his masters in the same major, Environmental Health.

“The Mailman” will keep delivering

All the Georgia faithful fully know the story of Stetson Bennett IV. Coming to UGA as a walk-on quarterback in 2017 after a record-breaking career at Pierce County High in Blackshear, Georgia., Bennett quarterbacked the Bulldogs’ scout team and when Georgia was making ready for the Rose Bowl semifinal playoff game against Oklahoma, he did a splendid job of emulating the Sooners’ Heisman Trophy quarterback, Baker Mayfield.

After playing at Jones Community College in Mississippi in 2018, Bennett returned to Georgia in 2019, playing in five of 14 games. Then in the 2020 opener at Arkansas, he came off the bench and rallied the Bulldogs to a 37-10 win over the Razorbacks. Bennett was Georgia’s starting quarterback for five of 10 games that season and finished the year as the Bulldogs’ top passer (by attempts & completions), completing 86-of-155 passes (56%) for 1,179 yards and eight touchdowns.

Then came Stetson Bennett’s senior season in 2021 and the 5-11, 190-pound QB fashioned a story line that would put Cinderella and “Rudy” to shame. After incumbent JT Daniels sustained a “Lat” injury, Bennett became the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback for 12 of the 14 games in which he played, including the last 10 consecutive contests. Bennett led Georgia to a perfect 12-0 regular season with the Bulldogs holding the No. 1 national ranking for most of the season.

But it was on the big stage of the CFP playoffs where Bennett stepped up his game to another level. Against Michigan in the Orange Bowl semifinal game, he completed 20-of-30 passing attempts for 313 yards and three touchdowns, leading Georgia to a dominating 34-11 win over the 2nd-seeded Wolverines. Bennett was named the bowl’s Offensive MVP.

Then, in the Bulldogs’ rematch with No. 1 Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game, Bennett went 17-of-26 for 224 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, both scoring throws coming in a clutch fourth quarter … a 40-yard touchdown strike to freshman Adonai Mitchell and a 15-yard TD pass to freshman All-America tight end Brock Bowers. Bennett completed all four of his fourth-quarter passes in directing two touchdown drives to lift the Bulldogs into a 26-18 lead over the Tide. Freshman cornerback Kelee Ringo then clinched the national title with his 79-yard interception return, making for the 33-18 final tally. Again, Bennett was named the game’s Offensive MVP.

For the season, Bennett completed 185-of-287 passing attempts for 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns, with just seven interceptions. He also used his legs to total 259 yards rushing on 56 carries and a score. Bennett, who tied a school record when he passed for five touchdowns against UAB last fall, ranked fourth in the NCAA in passing efficiency (179.69) and was one of three finalists for the 2021 Burlsworth Trophy, presented annually to the country’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.

And, the big news for the Dawg Nation is that Bennett recently announced he will be returning to Georgia for a final season, taking advantage of the NCAA’s “Super Senior” rule to use the added year of eligibility granted in 2020 because of the pandemic. He has said he plans to enter law school.

So, the Mailman will continue to deliver the mail/football for the Bulldogs in the 2022 season!

Stetson’s parents, Stetson Bennett III and Denise Bennett, couldn’t be prouder of all their son has accomplished the past few football seasons.

“Absolutely, we’re proud of Stet and the traits of stickability … that’s what you want in a child,” said Stetson III. “Somebody tells you that you can’t and you’re bound and determined to make sure that they know you can. Those are the type of employees I like to hire; those are the type of friends I like to have. I mean, it’s just a great story for sure,” he said.

The dad said Stetson IV has never lacked confidence at any endeavor he’s undertaken.

“Absolutely, he’s a great student, he’s a great athlete and just a great kid,” said Stetson III, the father of five children. “He’s a deep thinker and he’s kind of like, ‘Who are you to tell me that I can’t? Who’s writing this narrative that I can’t?’

“I was obviously at all 15 of the games,” said Bennett. “But I was at the Orange Bowl when somebody just called me and right after the game they said this guy – and I don’t know who the announcers were that game – said Stetson Bennett would probably never take a snap in the NFL but would go down as a legend. And they were calling me to say, hey, they’re saying Stet is going to be a legend. But what I heard was just one more person saying something that he couldn’t do. I’m like, when are these people ever going to learn – who says he’ll never take a snap in the NFL?”

Bennett said his son simply loves the University of Georgia and loves playing football … good reasons for his wanting to come back and use his final year of eligibility.

“If you’re going to play football somewhere, why would you play anywhere other than the place you love to play,” he said. 

Bennett III feels the Bulldogs have the talent to make another run for the championship in 2022.

“We’ve got great athletes on both sides of the ball and have that chemistry,” he said. “I never worried about Stet because I saw how the team treated him. I knew the chemistry that went on in the locker room, you could see it on the field. You could see it on the sidelines. At Neyland Stadium (against Tennessee) this season, if you go back and look, because I actually filmed that play, and I went back and looked; I watched Justin Schaffer and (Jamaree) Salyer, all the ones that were just so excited with Stet scoring on that quarterback run. Everybody was just so excited. When you have the locker room as a quarterback, you’ve got everything!” Bennett said.

Stetson III said the 2021 Bulldogs’ chalking up the program’s first national championship in 41 years only whets the Bennetts’ and UGA fans’ appetite for more great things to happen this coming fall.

“Absolutely,” he said. “And I’ve got two words for that … ‘Let’s Go!’”





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Murray Poole is a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia Journalism School. He served as sports editor of The Brunswick News for 40 years and has written for Bulldawg Illustrated the past 16 years. He has covered the Georgia Bulldogs for 53 years.