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Atkinson searches for a role

Sophomore running back George Atkinson III has his work cut out for him this season. Trying to carve a significant role out of the Irish offense won’t be easy in a backfield spilling over with players deserving of touches.

George Atkinson III ran for 124 yards on 15 carries during Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game in April.

There’s no doubt that Atkinson is a gamebreaker. His two kickoff return touchdowns last season — the most by a freshman since Raghib “Rocket” Ismail in 1988 — came at big moments in two of Notre Dame’s biggest games of the year. His 89-yard runback against Michigan State was the highlight of the team’s first win. His 96-yarder against USC temporarily swung momentum Notre Dame’s way in what looked to be turning into a blowout.

During the Blue-Gold game this spring, Atkinson showed the potential to provide the same level of excitement on offense. He ran for 124 yards on 15 carries and added 54 more on three passes. Atkinson said that performance gave him the confidence he was lacking as a freshman. Eighteen touches will be hard to come by, though, when the entire team is playing together this fall. Atkinson might be fighting for scraps behind 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood and experienced senior Theo Riddick if he can’t develop his own niche in the offense.

He said during the first week of training camp he and his fellow backs did a little bit of everything rather than specialize.

“We’re all getting the same type of reps,” he said. “Nobody is getting distinctive plays, and we all feed off each other. We’re different, if Theo is catching the ball better and running better routes, that pushes me to do the same. Same thing with Cierre, he’s making good cuts and reading the holes good then I want to do the same thing.”

One place Atkinson feels he might be able to find some separation is on the inside. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound back said his size makes him a good candidate for taking reps when the Irish are looking to pound the ball through the middle of a defense.

“A lot of people said I can’t run inside, critics say I can’t run inside. I really wanted to show that I can,” he said. “I’m still working on that reading blocks and making cuts inside. I’m a bigger back than most of other backs so I’m really looking at other big backs and see how they run inside and make plays in there.”

Atkinson studies big backs like Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Arian Foster of the Houston Texans to see how they break big runs from the inside out. He said their decisiveness — one cut and go — lets them slip through a defense and pick up important yards.

Despite all of its option in the backfield, Notre Dame doesn’t have a natural power back on the roster. If Atkinson can fill that role he’ll find himself on the field in plenty of crucial situations.

“We don’t have a Robert Hughes type player who really can plow through the pile for you,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said this spring. “We don’t have a Jerome Bettis walking around the halls. We have to find ways to execute on third down and move the ball. Sometimes the best way is to go right at them, sometimes it’s not.”

Of course, running through the teeth of a defense requires a strong grip on the ball, which Atkinson struggled with during his Blue-Gold performance. The sophomore fumbled twice and lost both of them in April. He said ball security was his top priority during the summer.

He has yet to put a ball on the turf during training camp, but said he still has a tendency to let his guard down in the open field rather than keeping the ball tucked high and tight against his body.

“I need to stop that and keep it up here all the time,” Atkinson said. “That’s the emphasis everyday.”

Notre Dame’s electric sophomore will need to earn the coaching staff’s trust on gameday before he sees the type of workload he had this spring. If he does, he’ll be too much of a threat to not have a role in the Irish offense.

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