(If anything), we have to get George some more touches... —ND head coach Brian Kelly
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.
The son of former Oakland Raiders All-Pro cornerback George Atkinson Jr., and twin brother of Irish backup cornerback Josh Atkinson was originally recruited to Notre Dame to play wide receiver. He had played running back, wide receiver, defensive back and kickoff/punt returner at Granada High School in Livermore, Calif.
As many teams projected him as a running back as a receiver. Washington was the only scholarship offer that wanted him on defense.
ND, meanwhile, chased elite running back prospects Malcolm Brown (who landed at Texas), Aaron Green (Nebraska) and James Wilder Jr. (Florida State) with very little reciprocal interest.
Three vaunted prospects the Irish did get involved with also ended up elsewhere. Savon Huggins picked homestate Rutgers at the 11th hour. Michigan prep star Justice Hayes flipped his Irish commitment to the University of Michigan, and the Irish lost a tug of war with USC, ironically, for a California standout named Amir Carlisle.
That's the same Amir Carlisle who's now on the Irish roster after transferring from USC in January.
That left Kelly with Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and Cam McDaniel to play running back for the 2011 season, the latter a late addition from Texas to the recruiting class. So Atkinson went from wideout project to basically a running back safety net initially.
He's turned out to be so much more.
"I think he's ready to do even more," said George Jr., now 65 and doing Oakland Raiders radio broadcasts on the weekends. "I'm not saying this as a father, and I'm not bitter. I'm saying this as someone who's been in football for more than 50 years: You don't want to take a thoroughbred and put him in a donkey's race.
"God bless him for having the patience. I'm proud of him for accepting his role. He's a team guy, and that's how (George III and Josh) were brought up to be. They're hard workers. They work for the opportunity to be great."
George III showed ripples of that as a freshman, not so much in the running game, where he had just nine carries on the season, but in the return game.. He was 19th nationally in kickoff returns with a 26.1-yard average and two TDs. Even his limited opportunities at running back yielded a couple of touchdowns.
That taste of success pushed George III to want to run track for the Irish, beginning with the indoor season last winter. Josh was on the same page, and cornerback Bennett Jackson — a former state champion hurdler in New Jersey — joined them.
"My dad's a big influence," George III said. "You can see he ran track in college, and I run track in college. I got to hear about his track days. Now I want my own."
George Jr., while in college at Morris Brown, regularly ran against Florida A&M's Bob Hayes, the latter who went on to win Olympic gold medals in track and a Super Bowl ring as a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.
"We were in the same conference," George Jr. said. "I ran a lot of seconds and thirds because of him."
The twins are the youngest of George Jr.'s 10 children, most of whom made their names in something other than sports — such as law, medicine and the military.
His standout NFL career ended roughly 15 years before the twins were even born. It was another 10 years before he showed them video of it.
"It was fun to see the NFL Films, hear the music in the background, him running in slow motion, making a sack," George III said. "It was fun to watch Jack Tatum, all of those guys. They're real legends.
"Growing up in the Bay Area, we'd get in free some places, just because of the name. But it's also a name that you have to live up to."
The competitiveness, and all the smack that goes with it, is all good-natured, though at age 56, George Jr. raced the 11-year-old twins just to shut them up.
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"That's all in fun," George Jr. said. "What's important for them is to be well-rounded, respectful, disciplined and humble. I stress that a lot — and the importance of education.
"As far as football goes, they have a desire to be better than Pops. That's a good thing. I hope they do."
He just doesn't tell the twins that. He'd rather tease them.
"He'll say, 'In my prime I'd beat you," George III said. "And I say, "I haven't reached my prime yet.' You don't know how fast I'm going to be.'"
Neither does the college football world. But they're about to find out.