Notre Dame football notebook - Atkinson future with Irish clouded

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK - The Twitter response from George Atkinson III, a concise little puff of defiance, hinted at something larger and perhaps less-isolated than simply a one-game suspension.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly was hardly expansive on the topic Saturday after his 25th-ranked Irish overcame the flu, some lethargy, a slick field and Rutgers, 29-16, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl played at Yankee Stadium sans Atkinson and cornerback Jalen Brown.

A pregame release stated simply that both players were suspended for the generic violation of team rules. Brown, a seldom-used junior cornerback, didn’t even make the trip. Atkinson did, then broke the news himself on Twitter Saturday morning.

“For those of you who are wondering I was suspended from today’s game for texting friends and family during team meal, as I did all season,” he tweeted. The tweet was later deleted.

When asked if Atkinson’s suspension may affect the player’s future with the team, Kelly responded, “I haven’t made that decision yet.”

Perhaps Atkinson may ultimately make the decision for Kelly.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior is ND’s second-leading rusher (555 yards, 93 carries, 3 TDs) and lead kick returner, but he has seen his playing time erode in recent weeks with the ascent of freshman Tarean Folston and the consistent surge of junior Cam McDaniel.

A couple of weeks ago, Atkinson’s father, George Atkinson Jr., made biting remarks about Kelly on a Kansas City area radio show, as well as on the program’s direction and the choice to spend bowl season in New York. The elder Atkinson does radio analyst work for the Oakland Raiders, the team for which he played during a decorated NFL career.

George Atkinson III, whose twin Josh has also seen his playing time diminish this season and even switched positions, then asked Kelly to seek an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board to get an idea of where he might land if he were indeed to come out as a junior for the 2014 Draft.

Brown, meanwhile, has played in nine games over the past two seasons, although just two in 2013, after redshirting as a freshman in 2011. He has three career tackles.

Decisions, decisions

The two Irish players most likely to join nose guard Louis Nix in the 2014 draft pool and forgo their final year of eligibility, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and tight end Troy Niklas, each recently received a grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board that suggests their ceiling as the second round.

Most draft analysts not only project Tuitt as a first-rounder but many have him going in the top half of the first round if he were to come out. Niklas hasn’t been evaluated nearly as high or as universally, since his draft interest came as much more of a surprise.

Tuitt was not made available to the media after the game, but Kelly expects a decision and an announcement very soon. Niklas, meanwhile, said he hasn’t really had a chance to give his draft grade much thought.

“I know he has a decision to make,” Kelly said of Niklas, “but I’m not concerned it’s a decision that will surprise me.”

Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the 2014 NFL Draft, to be held in May in New York.

If Tuitt did play his final game as an Irish player Saturday, his 1.5 sacks against Rutgers lifted him into a third-place tie with Victor Abiamiri (21.5 sacks) for third place on the Irish career list. New York Giant Justin Tuck is the career leader at 24.5.

VanGorder next DC?

Kelly confirmed Saturday after the game he has already chosen Bob Diaco’s successor as defensive coordinator and that it will be an outside hire.

“I just can’t make it public right now, because we were still in the process of finalizing contracts and things of that nature,” he said.

Multiple media outlets, including the NFL Network and ESPN, reported late Saturday night that Notre Dame has hired New York Jets assistant Brian VanGorder. VanGorder, in his first year as linebackers coach with the Jets, had worked with Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1989-91.

He was the defensive coordinator for Auburn last season when the Tigers went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.

Diaco was hired as Connecticut’s head coach earlier this month, a little over a week after offensive coordinator Chuck Martin departed to become the head coach at Miami of Ohio.

The process for finding Martin’s successor hasn’t advanced as quickly as landing a new leader for the defense.

“I’ve given much more thought to the defensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “I wanted to get through this game and the management of this game offensively in the style I wanted to run the game, which as you saw is a bit different than we’ve run it the past couple of years.

“And then kind of get the staff together and kind of make sure where we were. Honestly, I’ll have to sit down with everybody after the game and then move to the next step.”

Personnel matters

•Freshman safety Max Redfield on Saturday became the 19th different player to start on defense for the Irish this season.

He was credited with one tackle against Rutgers, and started alongside senior Austin Collinsworth.

“He did pretty good,” Kelly assessed of the former five-star prospect who spent much of the season as a third-stringer and special teams player. “I mean, I wanted to see him on the field. I wanted to get him some action.

“I made the decision to play him this year. I make all those decisions to play freshmen, and I felt like he needed to get more playing time. And when you don’t play a kid as a freshman enough, I feel a little bit responsible for that. So I kind of forced him a little bit on the staff.”

•Notre Dame’s dramatic shrinkage in offensive line depth came to light early in the second quarter Saturday when starting right tackle Ronnie Stanley’s helmet popped off during a play.

By rule, Stanley had to come out of the game for a play, and Kelly initially sent in backup guard Mark Harrell to play tackle for the first time in his career. But facing a third-and-12 situation, Kelly doubled back on his decision and called time out. That allowed Stanley to come back into the game for the next play.

Later, in the fourth quarter, junior Conor Hanratty had to leave the game with a leg injury. He was replaced by Harrell, whom Kelly had mentioned was his only real viable offensive line backup who was available to plug in Saturday.

Squibs

•Notre Dame improves to 17-6-3 at the two incarnations of Yankee Stadium. Saturday was just the third played there against a team other than Army. The other two were a 1949 win over North Carolina and a 1963 loss to Syracuse.

•The current senior class won its 37th game Saturday, the most by an ND senior group since the 1994 contingent also won 37 games.

•The 34 percent pass-completion rate by Rutgers was a season best by the Irish pass defense.

Notre Dame's DaVaris Daniels (10) stiff-arms Rutgers's Johnathan Aiken (26) during the second half of the Pinstripe Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Notre Dame won the game 29-16. AP PhotoFrank Franklin II