Atkinson Just Scratching the Surface

Atkinson Just Scratching the Surface

Junior running back George Atkinson either scored a touchdown or rushed for in excess of eight yards on 33 percent of his 51 carries last fall. Why is it Irish fans seem to focus on the other 34 attempts?

Sixty carries does not a career make.

It is, however, apparently a high enough number to judge a college backup in the internet age.

As a sophomore in 2012, George Atkinson carried the football 51 times. He scored on five of them, or as many as leading rusher Theo Riddick did on nearly 140 more handoffs, and finished with 378 yards and a 7.1-yard average, also best on Notre Dame's 12-1, national runner-up squad.

After an innocuous nine-carry freshman season in 2011, one in which he also returned two kickoffs for scores,

Entering his third season in 2013 as only returning starter for running backs coach Tony Alford's unit, Atkinson ranks as the lead dog (or to use Alford's phraseology, the lead "cat"). He's also the team's leading candidate for a modern reality:

Overanalyzed message board fodder.

Two camps have formed among the masses:

1.) Either Atkinson is the next big thing, a true home run hitter with the size (6'2" 217) and speed (10.36 in the 100 meters) to be the game-breaking runner the program has long-coveted, or...

2.) He lacks instincts and is only a home run hitter. A one-trick pony that can't cut it as anything more than a change-of-pace, X-factor 'back.

Or perhaps a third option exists: reality.

Atkinson's sample size of 51 carries spread over 12 games last fall isn't enough for anyone to base an informed opinion.

"Exactly! Thank you. Someone finally said it," Alford said of fans' tendency to jump to judgement of Atkinson.

"I want him to grow, just as (Theo) Riddick and (Cierre) Wood grew through the process. To hone in on the details of the game. Not necessarily just his position, but the details of the game. The details of our offense and the mechanics of our offense, and show the ability to do all those things at a high rate of speed.

"To be accountable to every move that he makes on and off the field, and have pride in it," Alford continued. "Work at your skill set, all the time. No ebb and flow and highs and lows. Just be a consistent guy. And I think we're getting that. Again, that's just part of growing up. I'm pleased with him and how he's taken onto it."

In other words, the Atkinson story has a few more chapters pending.

Refreshing…for now

The beginning of Alford's Notre Dame coaching career under former head coach Charlie Weis coincided with the arrival of Riddick and Wood. Both have graduated, leaving a noticeable void at RB1 and RB2 on the team's depth chart.

"Everyone, every year says the jobs are open, but then you walk in and have Theo and Cierre sitting there. It sounds good in theory…" Alford joked of his position group's balance of power last fall. "But now, its a wide-open slate. These kids can walk into a room and say, 'Nobody's really played that much.' George is the one who's played the most and he's not really played very much. They should think they have a shot."

Considering Atkinson made an impact as the team's third runner in 2012, and both Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes did so as the No. 3 and No. 4 'backs in 2010, Alford's earnest backup brigade should be at full attention.

"For me, as a coach, its kind of like leading them to water sometimes, but that's coaching," Alford said. "Its fun because they're taking it all in and trying to do it exactly how you want them to, even if (it calls for) a little variance. That'll come too. George has some of that already. For instance, if you make a check where a guy can move his alignment, George can recognize, 'I can stay right here and still do it right.'

"It's the old adage, 'We can sprint down the hill or we can walk down the hill.'"

Fittingly, Atkinson has mentally begun to sprint, though that wasn't previously the case.

"He's coming in individually and meeting, asking to watch film. He wasn't doing that before," said Alford. "Now part of that might have been because he had two older guys ahead of him. Whatever it was, he's now moving forward to saying 'I want to be the guy.'

"That's all you can ask for and now its my job to coach him."

No longer running track (Atkinson's aforementioned 10.36 100-meter dash time is the fifth fastest by a Notre Dame football player in the track program's history), the junior speedster knows which aspects of his game need improvement.

"Getting the most out of each run. Getting vertical as soon as I can," he offered. "The more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel at this level."

Rarely did those reps repeat in his third-string role last fall.

"Also getting a flow in the game," he noted of a potential game day change this fall. "When Theo would get 7 to 10 carries, and you get one, its hard to make something happen. You have to take advantage of what you can get."

The unit will welcome two four-star competitors in the summer, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. For now, Atkinson's chief competitors are his classmates Cam McDaniel (23 carries, 125 yards, 1 TD), and Amir Carlisle (Carlisle reportedly broke his collar bone in a recent practice. He missed 2012 with complications from ankle surgery), along with redshirt-freshman Will Mahone.

A new era dawns in the Irish backfield, though Atkinson offered a nod to the past as he embarks on his future.

"I wouldn't say its a new era. I picked up a lot of things from those guys," he said of Riddick and Wood. "Its continuing to grow as a unit. Coach Alford really emphasizes what we need to do to be ready as a group, not individually."

As Atkinson continues to grow his game, his body follows suit, up from 198 pounds as a freshman to 217, with an increased bench press from a paltry five to a hefty 19 reps of the standard 225) pounds.

"I definitely come into the weight room with that mentality, that I'm getting in shape to take (an increased) work load. That's what I plan on doing over the summer, too."

That's what Alford is looking for from every competitor over the summer. No jobs are taken, plenty of roles are available. Its been fun for

Then again, its spring football, where skill development and endless possibility walk hand-in-hand.

"We can laugh now," Alford said of the daily learning curve facing his his young unit. "We'll see how much we're laughing in August."

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