Notre Dame football: Atkinson not only option at RB

South Bend Tribune


There’s a different sort of “pop” when George Atkinson III hits the gauntlet.

Running back drills at a Notre Dame football practice reveal a lot.

Who runs hard? Pads low? Explosion.

Right now, Atkinson’s the guy. He attacks the punishing device that

simulates arms yanking at him as he breaks through the line.

That sort of power can’t be faked. Or taught. The special ones have it. The others? They envy it. That sort of power comes from a guy, 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, blessed with speed and carved in the likeness of a running back who does it the Irish Way.

Well, maybe that part’s still a work in progress.

“The ability to run the football the way we want them to run the

football in our scheme (will decide who plays),” said Notre Dame head

coach Brian Kelly. “If you saw how it shook out last year, Theo

Riddick was the No. 1 run-ning back because he ran the ball the way we

wanted to play the game. That will be the No. 1 running back.

“All the other running backs will have a role in the offense — it

could be catching; it could be protection; it could be a little bit of

both, somebody that can do all those things. It could be a third-down

back that gets us that tough yard.

“The No. 1 back will be the guy that runs the ball most effectively;

truly the best running back. That has yet to be determined.”

It’s safe to say that Atkinson has the inside track. While getting

sporadic carries behind Riddick and Cierre Wood last season, Atkinson

rushed 51 times for 361 yards and five touchdowns. The knock on him

was how “tall” he ran. Pad level. A 6-2 guy running straight up makes

for an easy target.

Pad level is a constant nag for Atkinson.

“My height (causes the problem),” Atkinson said. “Most running backs

are 5-10, 5-11. I’m 6-2. I have to focus on dropping my pad level at


“It’s pretty easy (to remember) when you’ve got random people telling

you to do it. ‘Get your pad level down, George.’ My dad (a longtime

NFL player several years ago), coaches, they all harp on me. I made it

an emphasis of my game.”

A guy can’t run high and hit the gauntlet with that sort of force.

Slowly but surely, muscle memory is taking over.

While there’s a focus on refining his game, Atkinson is also charged

with leadership responsibilities for a running back position loaded

with unproven talent. Oft-injured Amir Carlisle and freshmen Greg

Bryant and Tarean Folston are the leading contenders for playing

opportunities. Also throw Will Mahone into the equation.

“I’m kinda fitting into that leader role,” Atkinson said. “It’s new to

me. I’m trying to get a feel for the room and how we react to things.

We’ve got, basically, a brand-new group of guys. For me, I’ve gotta

get comfortable with that role of a leader. I’m starting to feel that


This has all the makings of a “tailback by committee” situation. While

Atkinson is the foundation, the other parts might be flexible.

For instance ... Carlisle. In the slot or in the backfield. Doesn’t matter.

“I like his versatility,” Kelly said of the transfer from Southern

Cal. “He catches the ball very well. He’s got a burst.

“He knows the playbook. Versatility is great if you can handle it.

What makes him the player he is is that he can handle the dual roles.

“You start with, he’s a very smart kid. You look at him and you say,

‘He’s not a physical kid.’ He’s almost 200 pounds. He’s solid. He’s

running inside-out. He can catch the football.”

An ankle problem sidelined the 6-0, 190-pound Carlisle all of last

year. Then, a collarbone injury ended his spring prematurely.

“Disappointment is the word that summed everything up,” Carlisle said

of his Notre Dame career so far. “I had to trust in God’s plan and not

doubt. Try to keep a positive attitude. I really didn’t get down

(after the collarbone in-jury).

“I didn’t want the collarbone to set me back in terms of learning the

playbook; getting back out there and catch-ing passes. Even though I

wasn’t allowed to have contact, there was still a lot of other stuff I

could do.”

Carlisle showed some promise as a freshman at USC: 118 yards on 19

rushes; seven receptions for 41 yards. Hmmmm, the guy can run and


Last year, it was Riddick who was that hybrid, multi-purpose athlete.

Slot receiver. Running back. Carlisle could be this year’s answer.

“I just want to do as (many) things as possible, so the coaching staff

feels comfortable putting me anywhere on the field,” Carlisle said. “I

take it as an honor and a blessing that (the coaches) trust me to put

me at multiple posi-tions. I can help this time by playing running

back, slot, wherever they want to put me.

“Sitting out last year, I got the opportunity to learn the playbook.

In meetings, I took notes. I really got into the playbook by myself.

That helped a lot in learning multiple positions.”

Versatile and motivated — a good combination.

Speed, with a “pop.” More good ju-ju.

This running back thing might work after all.

But, like Kelly warned, it’s still early.

Under the watchful eye of assistant coach Tony Alford, Notre Dame running back Amir Carlisle blasts through the gauntlet during Friday's practice. SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES