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Just a Blur

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, October 3, 2013

George Atkinson is fast.

How fast is he? He’s so fast that when he found a seam on Notre Dame’s first play of the second half last week and sped, untouched, for an 80-yard touchdown, it almost seemed normal.

After all, he is the blur who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a freshman, with no one other than the kicker ever laying a finger on him. He ran a 4.44 40-yard dash as a sophomore – in high school. He cannot remember a time he’s ever been caught from behind in the open field. He’s Notre Dame’s speed back, their outside runner, their home-run threat with each touch of the ball.

“You definitely try to take advantage of each carry you can, and try to break it for a long one,” Atkinson said. “That’s something I’m trying to get out of, and just trying to get those tough yards and get more carries.”

The true surprise Saturday came later in the quarter, on a routine 2nd-and-1. Atkinson took the hand-off out of the pistol, then plunged between the tackles into a crowd by the first-down marker. Impeding his progress was Oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon, who was trying to determine whether Atkinson would cut left or right. The junior back opted to plow straight ahead, bowling over Shannon, then dragged two more unfortunate Sooners on his way to a 14-yard gain.

It wasn’t the biggest play of the game, or even the drive. But to Irish coach Brian Kelly, it was what he had been waiting for the whole time.

“One of the highlights offensively was watching George continue to get better at the position,” Kelly said in a press conference Tuesday. “You know, running through tackles, really using good vision, and continuously, for us, making better and better decisions … If we can get that on a consistent basis, we’ve got a very talented player on our hands.”

Atkinson’s physical presence was a pleasant surprise to many Irish fans, but it didn’t simply appear out of thin air. Taking on tacklers was a point of emphasis for him all offseason, and was one the coaching staff continued to stress – with growing frustration – throughout this season.

“It got to the point where we had to physically sit him down and show him clip after clip after clip,” Kelly said. “These are tackles that you must run through.  They can’t tackle you.  You’re 220 pounds. And I think that constant coaching and teaching and showing, he then convinced himself that … he believed it, and then he did it.”

For Atkinson, who fell from opening-day starter to one of five co-starters at running back after meager production through the season’s opening games, pounding the ball inside required a complete change of mindset. But by learning to give up the easy yards and seek out the hard ones, he earned back the lion’s share of carries.

All in all, Atkinson compiled 148 yards on 14 carries in the loss to Oklahoma, a performance that raised the bar for himself – and his fellow backs. Juniors Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle and freshmen Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant have all competed with Atkinson for time, and every snap one takes shrinks the pool left for the rest.

Every player wants what’s best for the team to win, but each would hope to feature in that process, McDaniel said.

“We’re always competing really hard,” he said. “We’ve all had opportunities so far, and last week George really took his opportunity and ran with it, very literally. He took it 80 yards. They weren’t stopping him. He kind of had the hot hand that game, and if they weren’t stopping him then why take him out.”

Atkinson still got called out in film study this week, just like almost everyone else on the roster. But with a week of solid progress under his belt, the message has shifted from what he should do to what he should keep doing.

“Now it’s ‘don’t be a one-hit wonder’,” he said. “Keep doing the things I was successful at, and make sure I continue to get better.”

That includes continuing to harness his speed, which remains Atkinson’s primary and deadliest weapon. George has always been fast, about as long as he’s shared the earth with his twin brother, Josh. Growing up in Southern California, the twins played with and against each other in any number of sports, but the most intense battles usually came on the football field. Both starred at running back and defensive back at Granada High School, where practices were often a sight to behold.

“It was very competitive,” George said. “Our teammates really got into it, and our coaches really got into it when we got matched up together. We still push each other to this day, to see who’s faster and things like that to try and help each other get better.”

The twins followed each other to South Bend when it came time to choose schools, and Josh, from his spot at cornerback, still lines up against George.

The two have also battled on the track, where both blazed for the Irish with limited practice as freshmen. At the Big East Championships, George qualified ahead of Josh in the 100 meters with a time of 10.36 seconds. But Josh edged ahead in the finals with a 10.39 to take fourth – just ahead of George’s fifth-place 10.46.

Both twins stopped running sophomore year to focus on football, but George said that he’ll be headed back to the track to compete for Notre Dame – and take back the family bragging rights – after the conclusion of football season.

“I’ll definitely run indoor and outdoor,” he said. “[Sophomore year], I was trying to focus on my schoolwork and football. I could have done it if I wanted to, but I knew the coaches would respect me if I focused on football.”

In the meantime, Atkinson’s track speed has been on display on Saturday afternoons, but he felt that he hadn’t had a true chance to show it off this season to the extent he did with his twin kickoff returns freshman year and two touchdown runs of over 50 yards last season. That changed Saturday, when a pair of quick cuts allowed Atkinson to experience the exhilaration of seeing nothing but open grass ahead once again.

“There’s nothing like that feeling,” he said. “I felt like I was in a little bit of a slump in breaking a long run, so to finally do that felt like I got a lot of weight off my back.”

And while it had been too long since he had reached that long-touchdown high, Atkinson said he has learned to embrace a new kind of reward from every extra inch he earns the hard way.

“It really boosts your confidence up that the defense is having a hard time tackling you,” he said. “It tells you to keep running that way, and keep gaining those tough yards. It helps your attitude, and it brings momentum to the team seeing that you just ran over somebody.”

It’s been a long road to this point for Atkinson, but the junior running back and his 3-2 team are far from the destination. In praising Atkinson, Kelly was still quick to emphasize how much untapped potential he still has, and how much more they still expect him to improve.

“There’s still some room for growth there; we feel like he missed a couple of cuts here and there,” Kelly said. “But as coaches, it’s gratifying to see the development of a young man like George Atkinson, and we saw that against Oklahoma. “

Atkinson has shown the ability to grow into a role, sometimes off the field. Sticking together once again, both George and Josh are Film, Television and Theater majors, and often end up working with each other on class projects. This summer, Josh had to direct a comedy film, and George stepped in to be one of his stars. The literal spotlight proved to be tougher than the figurative one, as George said he was more comfortable playing in front of 80,000 than playing to the camera.

But George settled in, found his power on the screen, and took over his role.

“It’s tougher being in front of the camera,” he said. “There’s just one camera, and you have to know to say the right things at the right time. Football is just reactions.”

Either way, it helps to be quick on your feet.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu