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Unsung heroes look to make big plays

Chris Allen | Saturday, January 5, 2013

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Notre Dame-Alabama is a glamorous and high-profile affair with big names all over the field. Kelly versus Saban. Golson versus McCarron. Te’o versus Warmack.

You won’t find Chris Brown, George Atkinson or John Goodman’s names on the marquee, but each of them has the ability to swing the game with one play.

While the pregame hype has focused on big names, Notre Dame’s unsung playmakers have been preparing to make an impact in their sport’s biggest game.

Freshman wide receiver Brown earned a definitive nickname early on in his Notre Dame career: “Breezy.” Conflicting reports arose as to the origin of the nickname, as Notre Dame wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock joked the wideout’s 6-foot-2, 172-pound frame left him vulnerable to a stiff breeze. Brown had a different account.

“The singer Chris Brown, they call him Breezy, so a lot of the players on the team call me Breezy,” Brown said. “Some of the other guys on the team, some of the older guys like Robby Toma gave me some guff for [being thin], but it’s all fun and games.”

Brown’s top-end speed has made it easy for him to breeze past opposing secondaries in 2012, as he did on his first collegiate catch against Oklahoma. Brown’s 50-yard reception in the fourth quarter with the score tied was one of Notre Dame’s offensive highlights of the season, yet the man who made the play had little recollection of it.

“At the time, all I was thinking was, ‘Oh my God, I’m in,’ so it was crazy,” Brown said. “After the catch, I didn’t really celebrate at all. It didn’t click until I got over to the sideline.”

If Brown’s big-play ability is to come out Monday night, he will need to rely on the right arm of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. Golson’s arm strength and Brown’s speed have proven to be a nice combination against Oklahoma and on several near-misses on deep balls throughout the season.

“That Oklahoma pass hit me right in the numbers,” Brown said. “Everett’s arm is so strong. It surprises me sometimes, he’s the only person I’ve ever known who can overthrow me in practice and stuff like that.”

For Atkinson, the big plays in 2012 have come much more frequently. The speedster who burst onto the scene with kick return touchdowns against Michigan State and USC in 2011 got started in 2012 with a 56-yard breakaway touchdown run in the first quarter of the season-opener against Navy. Since then, the running back and kick returner totaled 759 total yards on the season, often on big-chunk plays. Atkinson said he is relying on his work in practice and his speed to help him be a game-changer in the title game.

“I’m relying on my preparation. You never know how the game is going to turn out, but you expect that it’s going to be you who makes the big play. You never expect anything less,” Atkinson said. “You always want to think you’re the fastest guy on the field. If you don’t think that, you’re going to get caught. I’m not worried about that. I’m going to run as fast as I can and that’s it.”

Though Atkinson’s impact in the kick return game was not as evident as it was in 2011, he said the young unit has matured heading into the matchup with Alabama.

“We had a young team in kick return this year, so we got better as people got more experience,” Atkinson said. “I try to be a leader on the return unit. Before we go out there, I’m trying to get them as hyped as I can.”

While Brown and Atkinson make plays with game-changing speed, graduate student wideout John Goodman has spent his final season in an Irish uniform honing a knack for clutch plays. After a season spent fighting injuries and making big plays in the passing game, Goodman said he hopes to make an impact in his final collegiate game.

“I fought through a lot of injuries this year. If I could explain my season in one word it would be ‘persistence,'” he said. “Just working every day to fight back and get healthy to win games for the team.”

Goodman said the trip to the BCS National Championship Game is special for him and other fifth-year players who were on the roster for several down years before succeeding in 2012.

“It’s funny because in the locker room [graduate student defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore] is always saying stuff like, ‘I was at Syracuse. I got snowballs thrown at me,’ so it’s funny now to look back on stuff like that and see how far we’ve come since then,” Goodman said. “It’s an honor to play with this football team and it’s humbled me to play with these guys.”

Goodman caught seven passes on the season, but scored touchdowns on three of those receptions. A fourth reception, Goodman’s first of the season at that point, came on a critical third-down heave on Notre Dame’s game-winning drive against Purdue. Goodman deflected credit for his big-play ability to the play-calling of the Irish coaching staff.

“You always have to keep your mind on doing whatever it takes to win, but the big plays come if you’re patient and do what the coaches ask of you,” he said. “That’s what happened to me this year. We have set-up big plays and plays that can turn into big plays, so it’s your job as a receiver to continue to do whatever you need to do to get into the end zone.

“We don’t look at it as a big play necessarily, we look at it more as an opportunity to do our job and get into the end zone with the football.”

With the national championship set to be decided Monday, unheralded players like Goodman, Atkinson and Brown are preparing to make an impact – and hoping to make a name for themselves by swinging the balance of Notre Dame history.

Contact Chris Allen at callen10@nd.edu