Sophomore George Atkinson III looks for daylight on one of his 15 carries Saturday.
“I was just thinking do not get stopped in the backfield,” Atkinson said after the game. “Do whatever it takes not to get stopped because that’s one thing that I was trying not to do, get any tackles for loss, and let the coaches know that I can make plays.”
He didn’t get stopped. Atkinson spun out of Williams’s arms, sidestepped an oncoming safety, outraced a trailing linebacker and then cut back across the face of a cornerback before he was finally dragged down near the 10-yard line. The 30-yard gain was a small sliver of proof that the electricity Atkinson brought to special teams as a freshman could translate to big plays on offense in the fall.
The California native’s initial emergence came during the Michigan State victory last September when he returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to open up a double digit lead in the first quarter. He also briefly breathed life into the Irish in their loss to USC last season with another kick return touchdown in the second quarter.
On Saturday, Atkinson was the team’s most productive player. He ran for 124 yards on 15 attempts, only going backward once. He knew coming into the game that he would get the bulk of the work in the backfield and tried to make the most of his chance to shine.
“With great players like Cierre [Wood] and Theo [Riddick] who are going to be getting the majority of the carries over the season, I knew I was going to be getting a lot of reps,” Atkinson said. “I knew it was going to be a great opportunity to take advantage and show the coaches what I can do with the ball.”
He was also the team’s most destructive player Saturday. Atkinson lost two fumbles — one on an option pitch from quarterback Tommy Rees that he couldn’t handle and another that slipped out of his hands before running into any defenders.
He and fellow sophomore Everett Golson gave the impression of two kids playing a pick-up game in the back yard. Both improvised well and flashed their athletic ability to get out of danger. But at times both were liabilities.
“George is sloppy with the ball. Those are the things we have to work on,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Saturday’s game. “You’re seeing something very exciting, but I think we all can sit here and agree we’ve got to get them to take care of the game, manage the football. If they do that they can really help our football team.”
Ball security will be Atkinson’s top priority this summer. He said he’ll turn to players like Wood and Riddick to find cures for his fumble-itis. Improving will be based mostly on endless repetitions and attention to detail on each one.
“I think I’m just trying to do things before I actually get there,” he said. “I just have to slow my game down a little bit more and pay attention to details like coach is saying. I plan on eliminating those types of mistakes over the summer and playing like a sophomore, not a freshman.”
Atkinson still has plenty of time to develop as a sophomore with Wood and Riddick firmly in front of him on the depth chart. If he can prove reliable with the ball in his hands, though, he’ll be another big play threat to add to the Irish offense.