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ND Backfield Grows, By George

There are a lot of job descriptions or roles for sophomore running back/slot George Atkinson III in 2012. Now it's a matter of how to properly execute them all.

George Atkinson's explosiveness was demonstrated on his kickoff returns for touchdowns last year against MIchigan State and USC.

As a kick returner, he was one of only nine players in the FBS last year to return multiple kicks for scores, his 26.14 average was the 19th best nationally, and he joined Irish icon Raghib “Rocket” Ismail as the only two Notre Dame freshmen to score at least twice on kickoffs as freshmen.

However, he was disappointed to learn that kickoffs will be moved up from the 30 to 35 this year.

“That give me less opportunities to make plays, but we’re going to take advantage of each one,” he said.

Last year, Atkinson was on the punt return team — but as a blocker. This spring after practices, he’s been working on fielding punts in an effort to improve an area where the Irish totaled three yards in returns at the end of the regular season, and didn’t even attempt to return one in the months of October and November.

“I don’t know what our punt average was, but it wasn’t good at all,” he chuckled, while acknowledging that it is far more challenging than fielding a kickoff because of judgment, catching it with people bearing right down on your grill, the flight, spin and the wind, among other factors.

He was recruited last year with the original intent to line up at receiver, but when running back Cam Roberson suffered a major knee injury last spring, Atkinson was stationed in the backfield, where he carried nine times for 27 yards and two scores while working behind Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and then Theo Riddick, after Gray suffered a season-ending injury in the 11th game.

At 6-1, 210 pounds, Atkinson reviews a lot of tape of 6-1, 229-pound Arian Foster of the NFL’s Houston Texans, specifically on how to keep his pad level down (although he also mixes in a lot of tape of 5-11 speedster Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans). He is trying to break a tendency of running too upright. However running backs/slot coach Tony Alford said Atkinson’s power might be underrated or overshadowed by his speed.

“He runs really strong,” Alford said. “He’s upright, but he’s a load to bring down when he gets his pads going in the right direction and running full speed because he can run through some stuff.”

After the first scrimmage on March 24, when head coach Brian Kelly was asked who the standouts were, the first name mentioned was Atkinson.

“George Atkinson ran the ball very physical and he showed some patience,” Kelly said. “One of the things with George and the learning curve is he’s just a little bit out of control. I thought he showed great patience today.”

Alford doesn’t know yet whether Atkinson can display the type of power that Robert Hughes did in 2010 or Jonas Gray in 2011, but he does note that, “He’s faster than both of those guys ever even thought about being.”

An All-Big East performer by finishing third in the 200 meters (21.47), Atkinson ran a 10.66 time in the 100 meters as a high school sophomore, and he acknowledged he did run the fastest 40 among the Irish players at their own combine this winter. He wasn’t sure of the time but thought 4.43 sounded about right.

“But 40s don’t really mean much if you can’t put it on the field,” he added.

Although the appeal of using Atkinson’s speed out wide is enticing, most of his reps this spring have come as a running back, where Kelly stated last fall that Atkinson has a more natural feel, whereas at receiver there is more to learn about routes and fielding the ball in the air. Atkinson agreed with his head coach’s assessment.

“I’ve been getting quite a few carries,” Atkinson said. “In a lot of scrimmages I haven’t really been in the slot much, but I’m been getting reps there …I have to work on my hands. There are still a lot of things I have to learn at running back. I’m trying to take one step at a time and not try to rush everything.”

There are so many potential roles for Atkinson — return man, power back, vertical threat … but Alford prefers to narrow it down to its most elementary form.

“Run fast and score — that’s his role,” Alford said. “ He’s just got to become in tune with what we’re doing conceptually within the pass scheme, where he fits, how to run a route and how to find a space — and not just from this spot but multiple spots. The more you can do, the better we will be, and the more we will be able to use you in different places.”

While trying to grasp the whole offense, Atkinson wants to gradually master the running back position and then expand his repertoire that can make him a true triple threat as a runner, receiver and return man. One way or another, maximizing Atkinson’s skill sets is an objective of the coaching staff. Tight end Tyler Eifert, Wood and Riddick are all expected to get their share of touches, but it’s imperative that Atkinson, potentially the team’s top playmaker, does too.

“There’s his learning curve, and that’s going to come and that’s why we coach every day,” Alford said. “That’s my job to make sure he gets that done, and it that’s not happening I’ve got to look in the mirror.”

“George is too good of a player for him to sit on the bench and not get involved in what we do,” Kelly said. “Coach [Chuck] Martin and Coach Alford, myself, we're going to have to make sure that he touches the ball.”

They expect that to provide happier returns, and not just from kickoffs.

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