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April 1, 2013

Clear lane for Atkinson

Suddenly George Atkinson III owns the best seat in the house.

When the junior running back arrives for positional meetings this spring he doesn’t see Theo Riddick or Cierre Wood. When Atkinson takes the field for practice, he no longer has Amir Carlisle threatening to take reps with the former USC transfer sidelined by a broken collarbone.

That leaves Atkinson as Notre Dame’s only running back with legit college football experience. And with the Irish offense needing to replace 304 carries and 1,659 yards from last season’s tandem run game, that’s a good place for Atkinson to be.

“Watching Cierre and Theo do it, you get a sense of how it’s done,” Atkinson said. “You gotta see yourself as what they were, as leaders in there, take ownership in the meeting room.”

Atkinson bulked up to 217 pounds this off-season, up seven pounds from the complementary back that head coach Brian Kelly tried to get more involved last season but never really did.

Atkinson finished with 51 carries for 361 yards and five rushing touchdowns. But 222 yards of that came against lightweights Navy and Miami. During the season’s final eight games, Atkinson rushed 22 times for 92 yards. He missed the Oklahoma win with an illness and didn’t get an offensive touch against Alabama.

“I want him to really hone in on the details, not necessarily just his position, but the details of the game and of our offense and of the mechanics of our offense,” said running backs coach Tony Alford. “Just to be accountable. To be accountable for every move that he makes on and off the field. Have pride in what you’re doing.”

“That’s part of growing up. I’m pleased with where he’s at. I’m pleased with how he’s taken to that. I’m pleased with how he’s asking questions, coming into meetings, wanting to sit down and watch film.”

“He wasn’t doing that before.”

If Atkinson’s attention to detail shows in the meeting rooms, his added muscle shows on the field. Notre Dame has had just one open viewing session for the media this spring, but in highlights posted on UND.com, Atkinson has flashed a new lateral agility.

In one highlight Atkinson left Ben Councell flatfooted behind the line of scrimmage, turning a potential tackle for loss into a double-digit gain. In another, Atkinson gave Sheldon Day only air during a three-on-three drill after the defensive end shed his block.

The added power in Atkinson’s build appears to power those moves.

“I feel I can gain some more, definitely,” Atkinson said. “With that strength and weight you build some confidence, banging some people up.”

The coaching staff not only sees a different back physically this spring, they see a new back mentally. It’s both what the program needed and wanted from Atkinson, who’s trying to be Riddick and Wood rolled into one.

“Part of that might have been two older guys ahead of him,” Alford said. “Whatever it was, he is now kind of moving forward to, ‘I want to be the guy.’ That’s all you could ask for.”

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