This article is a part of our 2012 Player Projections series. During the summer months BlueandGold.com will be evaluating each player on Notre Dame’s projected two-deep depth chart — reviewing their careers to this point and discussing expectations for the year to come.
Sophomore George Atkinson III was a standout in the spring game with 15 carries for 124 yards plus three catches for 54 yards, but he also lost two fumbles.
George Atkinson III — RB/Slot
Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 210
Experience: 13 appearances, 0 starts
Stats: 35 kick returns, 915 yards (26.1 yards per return), 2 TDs; 9 carries, 27 yards, 2 TDs; 1 catch, 10 yards.
Although he probably is considered the No. 3 option at the hybrid running back/slot position behind seniors Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, Atkinson might possess more game-breaking skills than anyone on the team — as long as he doesn’t break the Irish with turnovers.
“George is too good of a player for him to sit on the bench and not get involved in what we do,” summarized head coach Brian Kelly, with the caveat that Atkinson and classmate/quarterback Everett Golson are also “a heart attack for me.”
In the May 5 semi-finals of the 2012 Big East Outdoor Track & Field Championships, Atkinson’s 10.36 time in the 100-meter dash was second in Notre Dame annals only to Rocket Ismail’s 10.34 in 1991, and the fourth fastest of any college football player on the track this spring.
Speaking of The Rocket, Atkinson joined him as the only two freshman football players ever at Notre Dame to return two kickoffs for TDs in one season (versus 11-3 Michigan State and 10-2 USC).
Atkinson was originally tabbed as a wideout prospect even though he rushed for 1,669 yards and nearly 10 yards per carry as a high school senior at Granada High near his Stockton, Calif. hometown. At 6-1, he was potentially too much of an upright runner, and with the need for speed at wideout to put some pressure on defensive coverages and help spread the field vertically, Atkinson appeared to be the man to fill that void.
Nevertheless, despite a thin rotation at wideout last year and a strong 1-2 combination with 1,000-yard rusher Wood and the breakout campaign of the now graduated Jonas Gray, Kelly deemed Atkinson a more natural running back and had him apprentice there in his first year while trying to improve his skills when the ball is in the air.
This year with the creation of the hybrid running back/slot position, Atkinson’s versatility might be better utilized.
The first and foremost job of Atkinson, as it is with any skill position player on offense, is to protect the football. Overshadowed amidst his two kickoff returns for scores is the fact that Atkinson fumbled three other kickoffs. Fortunately, the Irish recovered all three.
Then in this spring’s Blue-Gold Game finale, Atkinson’s terrific performance in which his 15 carries averaged 8.3 yards and his three catches averaged 18.0 was nullified with two lost fumbles. That's like loading the bases with nobody out, but not producing any runs from it.
An impressive stat from last year is the top two running backs, Wood and Gray, lost only three fumbles . One came on a screen pass from Tommy Rees to Wood in the 31-17 setback to USC. Wood lost his only other fumble of the year at Michigan. Gray fumbled three times and lost one — the opening drive versus USF that was returned for a 96-yard score.
When your top two running backs fumble only five times in 13 games and lose two on conventional running plays, a head coach probably would sign up for that in any given year.
The second role for Atkinson is to find a niche at his new position instead of trying to be a jack-of-all trades player at the hybrid spot.
“He has some stress of, ‘If I can’t do all these jobs [at slot, in the backfield, or even flanked wide], they’re not going to play me,’ which we’re trying to alleviate,” noted offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. “We can just hand you the ball — but we don’t want to limit you either.
“It doesn’t mean everyone in our offense is going to move around like [All-America tight end Tyler] Eifert. If you can, though, it’s nice to move kids and ask them to do different things. If they can’t, when you go to Navy just settle in on, ‘George, this is what you’ve got, this is what you feel comfortable with,' and we’ll keep progressing from there.”
With his size and willingness to go between the tackles, he could also fill a short-yardage role that the Irish weren’t as strong with last year.
“I would love to play that role and get in between the tackles,” Atkinson said. “I believe when I get hit initially it takes a lot of guys to bring me down because of my height. I can bring a little bit more size into the equation.”
What's A Good Season?
With the new rules that move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line and allow touchbacks to start at the 25, Atkinson’s opportunities on returns are projected to drop quite a bit from the 35 he had last year. Only four of the 60 opponent kickoffs last year were touchbacks. With the new rules, 20 of them could have been.
Beyond the kickoffs, Atkinson had only 10 touches last year (nine runs, one catch) for a total of 45. We would like to see that number reach triple digits this year, provided his ball security improves. Keep in mind that Riddick had only 60 touches all of last season while missing two games with an injury
If Atkinson stays healthy, it’s conceivable that he could return about 20 kickoffs, average five carries over 13 games (including the bowl) and catch one or two bubble screens per contest to help get him into the open field. He also could be lethal on the wheel route where he goes long while lined up in the backfield. That’s nearly 10 touches per contest, or about 130 opportunities during the season, quite a huge upswing from his first year to second.
More significant is what he does with those touches. He’s capable of averaging 5.0 to even 6.0 yards per carry (Wood has been at 5.1 each of the past two seasons, and Gray was at 6.9 last year) or take a quick screen 20 or 30 yards with his speed.
Is it realistic? It will depend on how comfortably he settles into his multi-faceted position and not get swamped with information overload.
Last year, Atkinson was third in all-purpose yards (952, with a single season school record 915 on kickoffs), behind Wood (1,291) and Michael Floyd (1,204). This year, he too could conceivably reach 1,200, with much fewer of those yards coming on kickoffs. A lot will also depend on how well Wood and Riddick are playing.