Sophomore running back George Atkinson, III knows about high expectations. As one of Notre Dame’s most heralded freshmen last season, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound running back saw limited action as a running back last season, rushing nine times for 29 yards and two touchdowns. But the sophomore speedster did make a name for himself on special teams returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, and almost breaking a few more.
But this season, Atkinson would love to be known for what he does on the field at running back.
“I’m just out there working hard every day trying to get better as a running back,” Atkinson said.
The Stockton, Calif. native says he’s got a ways to go before he considers himself a good running back.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” he said when asked what he needs to work on this spring. “You never want to focus on your good things. You want to focus on your bad things. Me, myself, I think I’ve got a lot of bad things right now.
“I’d say pad level. I’m running a bit too high right now. It’s just a thing I need to work on, and catching the ball. There’s a lot of things. Just the little things in the offense, reads and things like that.”
Standing 6-foot-1, Atkinson is taller than many running backs, but the talented sophomore sees that as an advantage as much as a disadvantage.
“Smaller guys have a little bit of an advantage—-lower center of gravity,” Atkinson admitted. “I see it as an advantage, too, as once I start lowering my pad level, it’s going to be hard to tackle me. I need to gain a little bit more weight.
“You see other backs, I watch a lot of film like on Youtube. I’m always on Youtube watching running backs and how they run, like Arian Foster. They’re taller backs, so I’m just watching how they’re one cut and go, and I’m looking at doing more of that.”
One positive for Atkinson is his speed. In fact, he confirmed on Saturday he tested as the fastest player on the team.
“I did. I ran the fastest 40 (yard dash time),” he said almost apologetically. “40’s don’t really mean much if you can’t put it on the field, so that’s what I’m working on—bursts, and using my speed on the field.”
How fast is Atkinson?
“I think I was clocked at 4.43,” said Atkinson.
The Irish offensive coaches have now made the running back position more of a hybrid position rather than a traditional I-back or halfback that many are accustomed to. Atkinson is excited about also playing in space catching the ball as well as the more traditional handoff roles from the halfback position.
“It’s just more of an opportunity to get on the field,” Atkinson said. “It’s more responsibility as well. You’ve got to pick up on each play on all the positions.”
With a year in the system, the former Granada high school star says this spring is much less chaotic than last spring.
“You get a sense of what the coaches expect of you more,” he explained. “You know the playbook more. Basically, you want to focus on little things…details of the game.
“I think I’m more patient in the running game. Seeing the reads and everything. I’ve still got a lot of things to work on. Just lowering my pad level and exploding through the hole faster.”
With the high expectations for Atkinson this year, and a loaded backfield full of talent, the sophomore says he’s just got to remain patient and focused, and hope he makes the most of it when he does get a chance.
“I’ve just got to make sure I’m not too hard on myself and making sure I’m listening to what they want me to do,” Atkinson explained. “And worry about doing the right things and not how bad I’m doing the bad things.”
“It just means I’ve got to make less mistakes,” he said about the deep competition at running back. “I need to stop playing like a freshman and really start honing into the offense, and stop making freshmen mistakes. That’s what I’ve been focusing on, and taking in coaching….staying after. I’ve just got to work that much harder.”
The California native does have a sounding board, his father, former NFL great, George Atkinson, II. The younger George says his dad has been invaluable to him so far in his college career.
“He’s really focused on doing things right—pushing yourself and making sure you work harder than anyone else,” he said of his father. “He’s been a big help. He’s not really hard on us. He’s more of a role model to me and encouraging me to do good things.”
If the carries don’t come, there’ always special teams, an area where Atkinson has already electrified Irish fans. However, his job just got much harder with the new NCAA rule pushing kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35-yard line. That likely means less opportunities for Irish returners including Atkinson.
“Yeah, that new rule really hurt me, but we’re going to take care of every opportunity we have, and see how next year plays out with that new rule.” he said.