NOTRE DAME — In what must have been a moment of brief insanity, Everett Golson challenged George Atkinson III to a race.
Atkinson, who registers 10.36-second 100-meter times in track meets, eagerly accepted. The Notre Dame tailback sprinted ahead, finished and looked behind him.
Notre Dame’s most mobile quarterback in recent years was no where to be seen.
“He didn’t finish,” Atkinson said, laughing. “I don’t know what happened but I finished and he wasn’t (running).”
Teammates aren’t so eager to challenge the 6-foot-1, 210-pound sophomore anymore, especially after his 55-yard touchdown spring against Miami two weeks ago.
“After the Miami game, (my teammates) figured that I have the crown,” Atkinson said of being the fastest man on the team.
Though Atkinson is averaging a blistering 9.1 yards per carry in Notre Dame’s first seven games, he wants to be more than just “the speed guy” in the rotation.
This week in practice, Atkinson lined up with receivers to go one-on-one against the defensive backs and practice route running.
“I want to be less one-dimensional,” he said. “I want to have more dimensions about me and my game. I want to show that I can be trusted out there running routes.”
Atkinson is still third on the depth chart behind Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, but head coach Brian Kelly wants to see more from the sophomore.
“We just think that from a coaching standpoint, if there is anything amongst the three backs, (it’s that) we have to get George some more touches,” Kelly said during Tuesday’s press conference.
That comment alone can be a measuring stick from how far Atkinson has come since spring camp, when Kelly called the tailback “a heart-attack” to watch.
“He’s made great progress from camp to the point we are at right now where we feel like we can put him in a route and he’s going to catch the ball with his hands,” Kelly said. “He was not fun to watch in preseason camp when you threw the ball to him, and now he’s snatching the ball with his hands. We have seen great improvement.”
Though he only has one catch so far this season — a reception for zero yards against Stanford — Atkinson feels his game is developing more finesse than simply blazing speed in the open field.
“It was just a matter of me being more open to the offense, really,” he said. “Learning the process of passing routes and running the routes better. I’m catching the ball way better than I was. I’d try to run first before I catch and would look away from the ball. Now I’m really focusing on looking at the ball before moving up the field.”
The push for a more prolific role for Atkinson couldn’t come at a better time. BYU (4-3) is next on the No. 5 Notre Dame’s (6-0) slate and is bringing one of the best run defenses in the league with it.
Riddick, a senior who has most benefited from the tailback/slot receiver hybrid, leads the team in both rushing yards and receptions per game. After Riddick graduates, a more dynamic Atkinson could be a promising successor.
“(Atkinson’s) a big, physical kid that now is playing not just as the speed guy but a guy that will put his foot in the ground and go north and south,” Kelly said. “That’s why I continue to say, we have to keep working to give him more touches.”