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January 11, 2013

Opportunity awaits Atkinson

George Atkinson III stood to the right of a solemn Cierre Wood and a sobbing Theo Riddick on Monday night, the lockers of Notre Dame’s two lead running backs crowded by reporters after Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

The sophomore couldn’t sit down even if he wanted to.

Atkinson finished the game as a non-factor, not getting a touch on offense and posting three short kickoff returns. He knows that can’t continue next year with Riddick gone and Wood likely to follow.

After a season where the coaching staff talked openly about creating touches for the former four-star recruit, Atkinson sees plenty of opportunities coming next year. He finished with 51 carries for 361 yards and five touchdowns. More than half his production came in blowouts of Navy and Miami.

“They left a legacy here. They let us reach this point,” Atkinson said. “I just basically need to get to that level, to learn the play in the offense, get stronger, get faster, bigger, all those factors.”

Atkinson will have competition next spring from Cam McDaniel, Will Mahone and Amir Carlisle, who said he’s yet to reach 100 percent after suffering nerve damage from a foot/ankle injury suffered almost a year ago. Five-star running back Greg Bryant is scheduled to arrive next summer along with four-star Tarean Folston.

For Atkinson to hold down the starting job he believes it will take more than just hitting the weight room and the playbook. He said he must improve his route running first, which Riddick used to produce 36 catches for 370 yards and one touchdown this fall.

“I think I’m very close,” Atkinson said. “This year was very much a learning experience for me, a stepping stone for me. This season showed what I can do and showed my flaws. I’m going to focus on that and get better.”

The lessons learned during the loss to Alabama don’t figure to fade after watching Crimson Tide running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon combine for 41 carries, 248 yards and three total touchdowns in the 42-14 rout.

“The biggest lesson is Alabama, how they play,” Atkinson said. “How we’ve got to duplicate that in order to win a national championship because that’s what it’s going to take. We’re going to take that, use that as motivation to get to that next level.

“(They play) with a physicality, with a dominance, just with confidence. That’s how we’ve got to take the field in every snap, every game.”

Atkinson will be a big part of that attitude adjustment next season as Notre Dame attempts to pick up the pieces from the championship game and reassemble them into a team more capable of hanging with the Crimson Tide.

“We’ve been here before. You can say that now,” Atkinson said. “We expect nothing less but to get back and finish it right.

“Hopefully the seniors watch and will be proud of the legacy they left.”

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