BYU football: Notre Dame's George Atkinson III poses tough challenge for Cougars
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — He laughs as he tells the unflattering stories about quarterback Everett Golson supposedly not finishing a race with him and how freshman receiver Chris Brown apparently has too overloaded of a schedule to try anymore.
And how everyone else has just sort of accepted that Notre Dame sophomore running back George Atkinson III is now the speed guy on the Irish football team.
"About two weeks ago, Everett challenged me," Atkinson said with an incredulous tone. "I don't know what happened to him. And Chris Brown, don't get me started, oh my gosh. He's fast, and he can run away from a DB, but I don't know about me."
Atkinson's speed is showing up on Saturdays — sometimes subtly, sometimes not. The All-Big East track star has the two longest offensive plays for the fifth-ranked Irish (6-0) halfway through the season — a 56-yard TD run against Navy and a 55-yard score against Miami (Fla.)
His 9.1-yards-per-carry average, heading into Saturday's showdown with BYU (4-3) and the nation's No. 3 rushing defense, not only resoundingly leads the team, but only three players in the top 100 nationally in rushing yards per game have better averages per rush.
His 123-yard effort against Miami is tops by an Irish back this season. And yet, as part of a three-man running back rotation with seniors Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has not touched the ball on offense more than 10 times in a game this season.
In four of ND's six games, he has five touches or fewer.
"(If anything), we have to get George some more touches," ND head coach Brian Kelly asserted earlier this week.
Atkinson is doing is part to make it happen. Pushing his versatility is at the top of the to-do list.
It's not just what he is doing in practice. It's what he's doing after it. Atkinson stays late every day to catch passes from the JUGS machine. Earlier this week, he performed one-on-one drills with the Irish receivers in practice to push it to another level.
Atkinson has just one catch this season, and it went for a net of zero yards. By comparison, Riddick is ND's leading receiver with 20 catches.
"He's made great progress from camp to the point we are at right now, where we feel like we can put him in a route and he's going to catch the ball with his hands," Kelly said of Atkinson. "He was not fun to watch in preseason camp when you threw the ball to him."
Atkinson's rapidly expanding skill set, his soaring confidence, his improved toughness on inside runs and his threat as a kickoff returner make the Stockton, Calif., product ND's X-factor in the second half of a season that has the Irish on the cusp of the national title discussion.
"He's a big, physical kid that now is playing not just as the speed guy but a guy that will put his foot in the ground and go north and south," Kelly said. "That's why I continue to say, we have to keep working to give him more touches."
Riddick is ND's leading rusher with 318 yards, but his 80 carries represent one more than Atkinson and Wood have combined. Atkinson is next with 299 yards, with Wood at 283.
"A lot of people I know are telling me I should be playing more," Atkinson said. "But it's not under my control. I'm not worried about it. I know my time will come. I'm still an underclassman.
"What is under my control is to get better and have the coaches trust me to carry the ball."
His ascent in the running back picture wasn't originally part of Notre Dame's bigger picture.
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