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April 5, 2012

Can Atkinson make the grade?


Each week Josh Atkinson phones home with his spring practice grade.

Sometimes the sophomore cornerback has progress to share with his father, former Oakland Raiders all-pro defensive back George Atkinson Jr. Other calls he doesn’t, like the one last week when cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks graded Atkinson out at a 67.

“That’s failing for us,” said Cooks, who gave Atkinson an 81 a week earlier. “That’s (giving up a) touchdown. That’s exactly what happened. That’s why he dropped.”

Notre Dame sees potential in Atkinson, whose twin brother George Atkinson III broke into the lineup at kickoff return and running back last season. For now that potential seems at least a season away from showing on Saturdays, with Atkinson behind Bennett Jackson at the boundary cornerback position.

Notre Dame likes the early progress of sophomore cornerback Josh Atkinson.

Still, it appears Atkinson is well on his way to being more than an accompaniment to his more highly recruited twin brother. With just five scholarship cornerbacks, Atkinson has been getting chances to show why he could help the Irish now and expose where he needs to improve to do it.

“I want to get on the field as fast as I can,” he said. “I’m just taking that challenge and making sure I get better and making sure I thrive off of that. I’m one spot away from starting.”

Atkinson worked his way into the special teams unit at mid-season last fall and finished with two tackles. The playing time wasn’t extensive and didn’t include defensive work above the scout team. Atkinson believes the playing time was worth the eligibility cost.

“Just knowing what college football is all about,” Atkinson said. “Just playing at the next level, trying to understand the speed of the game and all the little things that go into game preparation.”

Cooks said Atkinson and sophomore cornerback Jalen Brown are both “level one” players in the defense, meaning they’re still learning where to be, never mind what to do after they get there. Atkinson was a press cover cornerback at Granada High School in northern California and played just one coverage his whole career.

Turns out Atkinson is still playing that one coverage even when he’s not supposed to be.

“Sometimes I’m still trying to get him out of his stance when he’s a deep third corner working at it,” Cooks said. “You can definitely tell that he’s been coached hard. His dad has instilled hard work, effort, 100 percent, ‘yes sir, no sir’ type of kid. You can see some of those characteristics of having an NFL dad and how that’s translating to his play on the field.”

That play figures to focus on special teams on Saturday and backing up Jackson during the week, but it’s clear Atkinson gives the Irish a long-term piece of the puzzle in their rebuilding secondary.

“Josh is to the boundary because Josh is a really aggressive player,” Cooks said. “He’s physical on the run. He has good use of his hands, getting in and disrupting wide receivers and taking speed off of them.”

Confidence doesn’t appear to be an issue either. For a young cornerback looking to make a mark, that’s a solid starting point.

“The faster you get on the field, the faster you get to be a better player,” Atkinson said. “I definitely love that challenge and looking forward to hopefully getting on the field starting week one.”


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