NOTRE DAME — In track, the key to a sprinter's success boils down to “stand tall and keep your head up.”
In football, that kind of running will you get your helmet knocked off.
Notre Dame running back and former sprinter George Atkinson learned that lesson painfully in April's spring game when linebacker Carlo Calabrese slammed into the ramrod-straight Atkinson as he drove up the middle.
Atkinson took note. His big-play style of running — the 50- and 60-yard footraces he broke away on as a freshmen — is no longer enough.
He's no longer a specialty package. He's a starter.
With Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, last year's main ballcarriers, graduated, Atkinson was tasked with adding an extra dimension to his game. The coaches knew he had the foot speed to beat anyone on the field, but did he have the gutsy, raw power to push through the middle for short gains?
“Just realizing every play isn't going to be a 50-yard run is a big step for me,” Atkinson said. “Last year I was more focused on trying to make that big play, trying to break outside every time, every chance I got to out-run the defense. Now I realize it's about getting those vertical runs, getting those tough yards through the defense. Right now, when I'm running, I'm looking at every chance I get to push it up the field rather than running around people and trying to out-run people. That just comes with maturity and consistency.”
Not that he can't still pack those home run plays. He's seen NFL running backs like Adrian Peterson do it enough to understand that running vertical doesn't always happen at the sacrifice of a big gain.
“Sometimes you think they're going just going to get four yards but then they get vertical and break for 60,” he said. “You realize that's a key element that you need to put in to be a good back.”
Atkinson hung up his track spikes last year in an effort to focus more on football. He said he grew accustomed to running upright in track, a habit he's trying to break now.
He's packed on a healthy 10 pounds since the spring, which he said has mostly been in his lower body. Running through the defense feels more comfortable now, especially when he can dish out a few blows of his own.
It's still very much a work in progress for Atkinson, who was on the receiving end of a couple of earfuls from head coach Brian Kelly during practice on Friday, Aug. 9. After failing to power through the defense during a drill, Kelly zeroed in on the junior, telling him he wasn't playing the way he did the first four days of camp.
Atkinson learned quickly, corrected his error on his next rep and earned a nod of approval from running back coach Tony Alford.
While Atkinson may be the clear starter heading into the season, he has little room for error with the talent stacked behind him.
Classmate Cam McDaniel currently holds the number two spot, but has a finally-healthy Amir Carlisle, redshirt sophomore Will Mahone and blue chip freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston all bringing a variety of experience and talent to the unit.
Kelly confirmed as much in his post-practice interviews, saying that there might be several roles the other backs can play, but the number one running back will be the player who runs the ball the way the coaches want him to.
“The number one clear back will be the one that runs the ball the most effectively,” he said. “That has yet to be determined.”
In years past, Kelly spent most of his time during drills hovering around the quarterbacks. Understandably so, since the past few years have involved a position battle or developing a young quarterback into the system.
During Friday's practice, Kelly was almost exclusively with the running backs, which is an unspoken sign of how important this unit will be this year.
“The expectations are high,” Carlisle said of the running backs. “We haven't really proven much on the field collectively. We have to make plays for this offense to run. (Kelly being there) shows the importance of our unit to the team and gives us a greater sense of responsibility.”