Did Atkinson's effort vs. Sooners signify breakthrough?

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas - Brian Kelly was convinced he had stumbled onto the elusive formula — the perfect motivation, the perfect visual — to coax George Atkinson III to start connecting the fractured glimpses of potential into something sustainable, perhaps even spectacular.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin recently assisted the Irish head football coach by assembling a cache of video clips of Atkinson not doing the right thing. Then the two and running backs coach Tony Alford sat with the junior running back, unveiled them to him and repeatedly asked, “Isn’t this a tackle you should be running through?”

The magic in the process was purportedly Atkinson’s breakout game against Oklahoma, a 148-yard performance in which the former All-Big East sprinter confirmed his status as the fastest Irish player on an 80-yard touchdown run in which he was never touched. What Kelly was more impressed with, though, was the pounding his biggest back, at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, heretofore uncharacteristically displayed on his 13 other carries.

“You have to decide that that's what you haven't been doing,” Kelly said. “He has to convince himself.”

The reality is Atkinson’s head is still churning, with hopes, with fears, with the thoughts about the three other talented running backs chasing a share of carries, and a fourth -- in mega-talented freshman Greg Bryant — who presumably will rejoin the crowded depth chart next season after convalescing from a knee condition.

An encore by Atkinson against 22nd-ranked Arizona State Saturday night at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium against the Sun Devils’ suspect run defense (92nd nationally among the 123 FBS teams) is hardly an absolute, given the fickle nature of a rising star trying to step into an identity that has been created for him.

Atkinson’s reaction to the supposedly ground-breaking film session only punctuates that notion.

“I’m trying to recall that. I’m trying to,” the twin son of former Oakland Raider great George Atkinson Jr. said.

“Maybe I got hit in the head too many times.”

What he does recall vividly is that his toughness, his technique have been questioned ever since he showed up on campus as an aspiring college wide receiver, only to be shifted back to his old high school position, running back, during his first few days at ND when some unexpected attrition at the position opened that door.

“Lower pad level” is a mantra that if Atkinson had been able to follow consistently, he certainly could have shortened the running back rotation. His career 6.7 yards-per-carry average (including a resoundingly team-leading 7.1 this season) would suggest there is no real competition.

But long runs have skewed the moments, at least statistically, when Atkinson couldn’t convert the third down-and-shorts or backpedaled when it was time to kill clock and close out a game. Being a reliable target in the passing game has been a chronic challenge as well.

Kelly could probably live without the receiving dimension to a certain degree if he could just get Atkinson to throw his weight around consistently.

“We know about his speed,” Kelly said. “Everybody has chronicled (it), and it's clear that's what he has as a skill. But he was not running with the kind of physical presence that we wanted, and so it was a constant coaching point in practice. And I had talked to him several times on the sideline that, ‘This is how you have to play. You cannot be tackled. You cannot be brought down by the ankles. You have to run through tackles.’”

At least Atkinson grasps the consequences if he regresses.

“It doesn’t mean anything if I don’t come out next weekend and try to do the same or do better,” he said of the ascendance against Oklahoma.

In the matchup against Arizona State (3-1), it’s even more critical.

The Sun Devils’ own offense, coming off its highest production in a conference game in 13 seasons (612 yards in a 63-41 waxing of USC), isn’t just prolific under second-year head coach Todd Graham. It’s a quick-strike attack. More than 77 percent of ASU’s 103 scoring drives during the Graham regime have lasted three minutes or less. Last year Arizona State had only three scoring drives that exceeded four minutes.

The formula Stanford used to throttle ASU in the Sun Devils’ lone loss this season (a 42-28 final that was much more defined by the 39-7 score after three quarters) was similar to Arizona State’s worst four offensive performances in 2012, all losses (Missouri, Oregon, Oregon State and USC).

Defensively, all five teams brought effective pressure against ASU standout quarterback Taylor Kelly, who currently is fourth in the nation in total offense (373.5 yards per game) and stands one spot ahead of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

Stanford had three sacks. The four from 2012 combined for 17. And in each of the five games, Kelly threw at least one interception — two or more in four of them. In Kelly’s career as a starter, ASU is 9-0 when he doesn’t throw a pick, 2-6 when he throws at least one.

Kelly’s defense to this point hasn’t shown a proficiency to do either — with just three picks and three sacks during a perplexing 3-2 start.

There is an offensive component too in the five-game pattern. The winning teams in those games ran the ball effectively and played keepaway from the ASU offense. Stanford, for instance, used 49 running plays to grind out 240 yards and mixed in only 17 passes. The Sun Devils ran the largest time-of-possession deficit of the season (-10:52) in that game.

“I see the same things on film from Arizona State that everybody else does,” Atkinson said.

He also sees that trying to get into a rhythm as a running back may be a luxury this year, unless he can separate from fellow juniors Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel as well as freshman Tarean Folston. McDaniel, who grew up about a half hour north of AT&T Stadium, leads ND in carries with 48. Atkinson is next with 38, followed by Carlisle (36) and Folston (11).

“You’ve got to take advantage of every carry you get,” said Atkinson, who counts his family as his biggest motivation.

Twin brother Josh has an even more difficult fight for playing time. Having slid off the two-deeps at cornerback in August due in part to the arrival of freshman prodigies Cole Luke and Devin Butler, Josh Atkinson is trying his hand at wide receiver, though he has yet to appear in a game at that position.

“He’s got a lot to learn,” Kelly said Thursday night after practice. “He’s just started from scratch at the wide receiver position, but he’s working on it every day and he’s somebody who really wants to get on the field, so he’s engaged. He comes to work with a great attitude every day.”

Now if Kelly can get that same attitude from his twin brother — the biggest, fastest most-experienced running back on the Irish roster?

“(Then) we’ve got a very talented played on our hands,” he said.

Through Notre Dame's first four games, George Atkinson III was the team's third-leading rusher with just 121 yards. But last week against Oklahoma, the junior exploded for 148 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown scamper. SBT photo/JAMES BROSHER