At 6-foot-1 ¼, 200 pounds, George Atkinson III looks the part of a wide receiver in training.
But it’s hard to argue the results when the quarterback simply turns around and hands him the football. Atkinson rushed for 1,669 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Granada High School in Livermore, Calif., where he regularly snapped off 60- and 70-yard runs from scrimmage.
The circumstances upon his arrival at Notre Dame dictated that the plans to move him to wide receiver be put on hold.
According to Irish head coach Brian Kelly, it’s time to scuttle those plans completely.
“He’s a running back,” said Kelly three days after Atkinson scored his first rushing touchdown in an Irish uniform against Air Force.
“We’ve told him that’s your position. He’s better qualified, uniquely qualified, to play the running back position. He reads holes well. He’s going to be a really physical back for us. So his destination is running back.”
The decision for Atkinson to begin his collegiate career at his more familiar running back position came about for several reasons. Cam McDaniel was the only other running back prospect in the freshman class, and with Armando Allen and Robert Hughes graduated, and Cameron Roberson out for the season after suffering a severe knee injury in March, the Irish finished the spring with Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray as the only two scholarship running backs.
“Coming in, just the depth that we had there and with Cam (Roberson) going down, I had a feeling that was going to be my position,” Atkinson said. “Over the summer, I was doing running back drills with the running backs. So it wasn’t really a surprise.
“It’s a comfort zone. I’m excited about getting better at that position.”
Atkinson showed just how dangerous he is with the football in his hands when he was inserted on kickoff returns in the third game of the season against Michigan State. After taking a pretty good crack on his first return, Atkinson’s second attempt put him among elite company in Notre Dame Stadium history when he scaled the Spartan sideline for an 89-yard score.
Three games later, he scored on a one-yard plunge against Air Force.
“It’s exciting to take it the distance, but scoring one at running back makes it feel more official,” Atkinson grinned. “It’s part of the offense. Scoring a touchdown at Notre Dame is a great feeling, and being able to share it with my brother and knowing he’s on the field too, it was just like high school.”
Atkinson’s twin brother, Josh, a defensive back, debuted on the Irish kick coverage team against Air Force and was one of the first players along the Notre Dame sideline to congratulate his sibling.
As Josh likes to tell it, George got the father’s name - a name made famous as a physical defensive back for the Oakland Raiders from 1968-77 - and Josh got his father’s number 43.
“He came out first. I kicked him out first. Get out of here!” laughed Josh. “But I got the number.”
The twins shared in the joy of George’s rushing touchdown against Air Force.
“There’s no jealousy when it comes to me and my brother,” Josh said. “We’re going to support each other in everything, and we’re going to push each other when one of us isn’t doing well in practice. It’s a good feeling to see my brother get in the end zone. I’m definitely always there to support him.”
One area where George will need support after the season is in the weight room. With his frame, George will need to slap on a good 15-to-25 pounds the next three years to maximize his ability at the running back position.
“I definitely plan on gaining pounds this off-season and getting ready to take on those big hits at running back,” George III said. “I’m excited to get bigger and faster. I’ve maintained my weight throughout the weeks, and I plan on gaining more weight over the off-season.
“There are definitely a lot of things I need to work on like pass blocking alignments and things like that. But I feel pretty comfortable in reading the holes and getting a better sense of the scheme of the offense. Running this offense and picking it up allows you stop thinking and do more reacting.”
His head coach agrees.
“There’s a better comfort level (at running back), and he’s got good ball skills (at receiver), not great,” Kelly said. “He’s better suited to play running back.”
He’ll get no argument from Atkinson.
“I’m happy with the decision to keep me there for the future.”