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April 20, 2012
Returning kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan State and USC as a freshman is nice. But sophomore George Atkinson III wants a bigger bite of the apple.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder, who became the first Irish freshman to return two kickoffs for scores in the same season since Raghib “Rocket” Ismail in 1988, expanded his horizons this spring, putting him in position to make a larger contribution this fall.
“Last year was different as a freshman,” said Atkinson, whose twin brother Josh continues to push for playing time in the defensive secondary. “You just want to get on the field on special teams as a freshman.
“This year, I’m really focused on trying to get stronger and faster and learning the offense better to get me on the field. Picking up the offense better from last year, and being able to make plays and take advantage of the chances that the coaches are giving me. Everything from ball exchange from the quarterbacks to route running to reads...It’s been a lot.”
A player of Atkinson’s ilk makes coaches dream up ways to put the football in his hands. In addition to kickoff returns after averaging an impressive 27.4 yards per his 30 attempts in 2011, Atkinson is catching punts while picking up the nuances of the running back/slot receiver positions.
“It’s a hybrid position, and you have Coach (Tony) Alford helping us learn both positions because he’s done both in his career,” Atkinson said. “He’s been a real big help, and now you have Robby Toma in the meeting rooms with you. He’s been a real great help teaching me the route concepts. Same with Theo (Riddick).”
Alford’s job this spring was to maximize Atkinson’s skill set, which makes him a prime candidate to run the football, catch the ball in the flat, catch the ball underneath the linebackers, and perhaps even use his breakaway speed deep down field.
“You’ve got to find a way to get the ball in his hands because he has the ability to make big plays,” said Alford of Atkinson. “The more he can do, the more opportunities we have to get the ball in his hands, the greater the threat. We want to be able to place him all over the field, so he’s got to learn this offense and do it in fine detail.
“He’s a guy with the ability to make plays. He’s a bigger guy, so we’ve really got to work on his pad level. He’s got outstanding speed, and when he gets running, he’s going to be hard to tackle.”
Asked if he considers himself a big back, the affable Atkinson hesitates. Quantifying his skill set is a bit complex.
“I guess that’s how other people view me,” said Atkinson of the big-back tag. “I just view myself as a guy that’s going to run hard and try to get as much extra yardage as I can. I utilize my speed as much as I can in open space, so I guess it’s a combo of things.
“When I get hit, initially, it takes a lot of guys to bring me down. I could bring a little more size into the equation. You want the mentality that you’re not going to go down with one guy.”
But it’s in those wide open spaces that Atkinson truly excels, as he showed on his 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Spartans in week three, and his 96-yarder four games later versus the Trojans. His background in track, including his participation with the Irish track team this winter/spring, makes him a prime candidate to touch the football in Brian Kelly’s expanding spread offense.
That speed on the football field is best accentuated with additional knowledge, which Atkinson picked up this spring.
“A lot of it is learning the concept of the routes,” said Atkinson, summarizing his multi-layered activities during the first 14 practices of the spring. “Last year, all I knew was what the running back had to do. Now you have to know when you’re to the field or to the boundary.
“You’ve got to come with the mindset to take things one at a time. Take it slow. You don’t want to try to learn everything at one time because you won’t learn anything.”
Atkinson learned a lesson about tackling technique this spring when he suffered a bruised lung on a collision with walk-on Blake Breslau. Breslau suffered a concussion, Atkinson a bruised lung.
“We were doing the hard-hat drill where you run down full speed and tackle the ball carrier,” Atkinson said. “I was running pretty fast and didn’t get low enough on the tackle. It was a good hit, but I suffered a bruised lung. I’ll be good for the spring game.”
Saturday, Atkinson hopes to show off his new skills in front of a partisan Notre Dame audience.
“Special teams are great, and I want to continue contributing in that area,” Atkinson said. “But my goal is to be as versatile as I can be, and hopefully I get opportunities on offense and take advantage of whenever the coaches allow me to do so.
“That’s what I’m working towards. Special teams are going to be there for me. But I want to be able to contribute more.”
That works out well. So does the coaching staff.
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