NOTRE DAME — For the better part of a year, running back George Atkinson has pledged to become more than a home-run specialist in the Notre Dame backfield.
“I want to be less one-dimensional,” the former track star said last October. “I want to have more dimensions about me and my game. I want to show that I can be trusted out there running routes.”
Yet his play never quite caught up with his aspirations. Atkinson was named the starting back entering the 2013 season but was quickly overshadowed by Amir Carlisle’s versatility and Cam McDaniels’s gritty play in short-yardage situations.
Atkinson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior, remained a big-play threat, but he struggled to replicate the all-around production Carlisle and McDaniel provided. His carries dwindled to five or six per game, and he had one touchdown in the first four contests.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin sat Atkinson down in the film room and showed clip after clip of what the junior needed to do to get the carries he wanted.
“‘Isn’t this a tackle you should be running through? Shouldn’t you be getting through this tackle? How did you get tackled here?’” Kelly and Martin would say to Atkinson. “‘These are tackles that you must run through. They can’t tackle you. You’re 220 pounds.’”
In practice, Martin continued to ride Atkinson, correcting the tailback whenever his pad level was too high or he wasn’t making the right cut.
“That’s what Coach Martin has been harping on with all of the backs,” Atkinson said. “Trying to get more (yards) than just what the line is blocking for.”
Against a stingy Oklahoma run defense, Atkinson’s game finally clicked. On a night when his team stumbled along on both sides of the ball, Atkinson emerged as a lone bright spot, finishing with 148 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries.
He punched up the middle, he jump-cut, he broke tackles, he gained yards after contact and, yes, he even broke away on a career-long 80-yard dash.
In other words, he was finally running the way Brian Kelly and staff wanted him to run.
“It’s one of those things that I think he knew that he was not going to get the share that he wanted — the share meaning the carries — unless he did the things that we were demanding, and that was run with more authority and utilize his size, because we know about his speed,” Kelly said of Atkinson. “Everybody has chronicled, and it’s clearly that’s what he has as a skill, but he was not running with the kind of physical presence that we wanted and so it was a constant coaching point in practice, and I had talked to him several times on the sideline that this is how you have to play.”
Atkinson will likely need to replicate his performance against Arizona State on Saturday, Oct. 5. The No. 22 Sun Devils (3-1) are scoring an average of 44 points per game, which could be a headache for a Notre Dame defense trying to right the ship after a decline from last year. On the other hand, ASU gave up an average of 240 rushing yards in games against Wisconsin, Stanford and Southern California.
Atkinson will be a key player in Saturday’s game in Dallas, especially as quarterback Tommy Rees battles accuracy and turnover issues. Arizona State’s biggest defensive weakness seems to be its tendency to give up big-chunk plays off the edge, which opens the door for Atkinson to shine in his old footrace style of running.
That is, of course, if he can continue to get those tough yards up the middle.
“There’s still some room for growth there,” Kelly said. “We feel like he missed a couple of cuts here and there, but as coaches, it’s gratifying to see the development of a young man like George Atkinson, and we saw that against Oklahoma.
“Now we want to see that next stage, and we want to see that continue.”