It became pretty obvious in Notre Dame’s annual spring game that George Atkinson III was developing into a big-play performer.
The only question left was which side of the football would his big play benefit.
Flashing the breakaway game that surfaced so vividly with a pair lengthy kickoff returns for touchdowns as a freshman in 2011, Atkinson carried 15 times for 124 yards and caught three passes for another 54 yards in the annual Blue-Gold Game. But he put the football on the ground - twice - both of which were unforced turnovers.
The rough edges in the games of both Atkinson and freshman quarterback Everett Golson proved a challenge on the head coach’s ticker.
“Those guys are exciting, electric players,” said Brian Kelly, “but they are a heart attack for me.”
The memory brings a wide grin to Atkinson’s face.
“I look in the mirror now and I say, ‘Hold on to the ball!’” laughed the engaging Atkinson of his spring miscues. “That’s what I’m going to do. I tell myself that. I’m keeping it up here (high and tight).”
In the Irish backfield, there’s no margin for error if you want to get on and stay on the field. Cierre Wood cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2011. Theo Riddick was every bit as impressive as Atkinson in the Blue-Gold Game, flashing a multiplicity of skills following his move back to running back. Amir Carlisle transferred from USC. Freshman Will Mahone gives the Irish a bigger body in the offensive backfield.
Make a critical mistake and there someone’s waiting in the wings, ready to usurp your playing time. Atkinson says he’s confident he can become a go-to guy in the offense now that he’s passed some of the issues that often plague rookies on the collegiate level.
“(The Blue-Gold Game) gave me confidence in myself to make plays,” Atkinson said. “When you have confidence in yourself, you understand the plays a lot better. You’re not worried about doing something wrong or making a guy miss or not having enough speed.
“As a freshman, you’re having trouble with plays, blocking assignments, you’re getting yelled at all the time…Confidence was something that was a little bit of trouble throughout the freshman process. But now I’m really starting to take everything in.”
The challenge for Atkinson is that there’s even more on his plate to digest this year than there was last season. Notre Dame’s running backs are cross-training as receivers, whether it’s in a wideout formation or taking a swing pass out of the backfield.
“Coach (Tony) Alford and the players are doing a really good job of helping other players understand the concepts, the plays and the routes,” Atkinson said. “Last year, you worried about your assignment and what you had to do on that play. With that dual threat, you have to know the concepts of the play itself and who has to do what.”
One area of Atkinson’s game that doesn’t require a lot of study time is his role as the team’s top kick returner. That comes much more naturally and instinctively. Last year, Atkinson became the first Irish freshman since the incomparable Raghib “Rocket” Ismail in 1988 to return two kickoffs for scores in the same season.
Atkinson showed a clutch gene, too. His first one, an 89-yarder in week three against Michigan State, propelled the Irish to their most significant victory of the 8-5 season. His second one, a 96-yarder late in the second quarter, revived the Irish after falling behind 17-0 to USC.
Atkinson has been practicing on every Irish special team this pre-season except PAT and PAT block. He remains in the running for punt return duty as the Irish search for answers in an area of significant weakness. But he was surprised to see his spot in the alignment.
“It was a thought before camp started,” said Atkinson of punt return duties. “I worked on catching punts all summer. Then I looked on the depth chart and I’m blocking on punt return. It’s the coaches’ decision, but I’m still out there after practice catching punts because you never know when your number might be called. I just keep practicing and control what I can control.”
Atkinson knows he has to be consistent to get his time on the field in a crowded backfield.
“As long as we’re matriculating the ball down the field, everybody is going to get reps,” Atkinson said. “As far as spreading the ball around, I hope I do good enough for the coaches to trust me on game day, not just in practice.
“Cierre is making good cuts and reading the holes well. Theo is playing more X. He’s catching the ball better and running better routes, and that pushes me to do the same. We’re all getting the same type of reps and we all feed off each other.”
If Atkinson holds on to the football and understands his multiple roles, his playing time will expand.
“That’s why I have to work on all aspects of my game,” said Atkinson, “especially ball security. Tucking it away, catching the ball…I’m going to continue to work on that and stress that. I’m coming into this season with excitement.”
The kind, hopefully, that Brian Kelly can live with.