Notre Dame Football: Atkinson to leave ND for NFL Draft

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

George Atkinson Jr., measured his words, not exactly a familiar or comfortable concept, as he framed his son George Atkinson III’s abrupt departure Wednesday from the Notre Dame football program.

“It’s really important that you put in there that he enjoyed his three years at Notre Dame,” said the former Oakland Raider standout and current radio analyst for the team and a man who’s not known for ever filtering his thoughts.

The bottom line is George Atkinson III is three and out.

The Notre Dame junior running back/kick returner’s father, George Atkinson Jr., confirmed to the South Bend Tribune his son will enter the 2014 NFL Draft and is in the process of finalizing a deal with an agent.

The elder Atkinson said his son’s decision had nothing to do with a crowded depth chart at running back or his son’s suspension “for a violation of team rules” from ND’s Dec. 28 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers.

“Just an opportunity, basically, you know,” Atkinson Jr. said of his son’s decision to join the swelling pool of early entries that has already exceeded the 73 who came out last draft cycle.

“That was it. There weren’t any other factors. He just felt he was ready to make the transition. I think it’s an excellent move. Just like he thinks, it’s a chance for him to show what he has. And when you look at the draft this year, I think he has a chance to do something.”

Not everyone will agree with that.

Draft analyst Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com said being selected in the seventh and final round in May appears to be the best-case scenario for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Atkinson, who started the year as ND’s No 1 option at tailback and finished the season as its No. 3 back.

“On paper, when you look at his size, his weight, his speed, you think, ‘That’s a first-round pick,’” Wright said. “He looks like that kind of athlete on paper.

“The problem is the results on the field. He doesn’t play up to those physical tools, and he’s just not a natural runner. I don’t know that he has instincts for the position. He has some shaky hands as a receiver out of the backfield. I definitely don’t think it was in his best interests to enter this draft. I don’t think he’s shown enough at this point to get drafted.”

Atkinson was second on the team in 2013 in both yards (555) and carries (93) behind classmate Cam McDaniel. Freshman Tarean Folston surged late in the season and passed Atkinson on the depth chart as well.

Those two, junior Amir Carlisle and redshirted freshman Greg Bryant all return for the 2014 season.

Atkinson averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return in 2013, which ranked 28th nationally. He had seven of his 10 career receptions this season for 51 yards. He was originally recruited to ND to play wide receiver.

George Atkinson Jr., said the feedback he received from the NFL Draft Advisory Board is that his son is projected to be picked in rounds 4, 5, or 6.

“That’s not so much important,” he said. “After he gets drafted, he’s still going to have to go into somebody’s camp and prove he can play. If he’s willing to put the work and the time in, we’ve got some guys out here who can work with him diligently and make sure he’s prepared.”

Atkinson Jr., said George III’s twin brother, junior Josh Atkinson, will remain at Notre Dame and said Josh is determined to get his degree from ND. Josh Atkinson started his career as a cornerback, then moved to wide receiver earlier this season but never made an impact at his new position.

He played in five games in 2013 but did not catch a pass and finished the season with three special teams tackles.

“He’s living in an adult world now and he has to understand everything doesn’t always work out the way you think it was going to,” Atkinson Jr. said of Josh. “So you don’t ask yourself, ‘why.’ You just keep moving forward and dealing with it, wherever you are, whatever point in life you are. You want to be the best you can be.”

George Atkinson III becomes the third player from the 2013 roster to jump into the draft pool with a year of eligibility left. He joins senior nose guard Louis Nix, who had a fifth-year option, and junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt.

Still pondering his future is junior tight end Troy Niklas, whose father, Don, told the South Bend Tribune Wednesday that he and Troy’s mother want very much for Troy Niklas to stay and get his degree.

Underclassmen have until next Wednesday to declare.

Niklas received a grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board that projected him in a range from the second to the fourth round.

“I think that grade is relatively accurate,” Wright said. “I think that’s where he’d come off the board. He’d be in the conversation to be the fourth tight end to be picked in this draft, and that’s why I think it would be a mistake for him to come out.

“If he went back for another year, he could be the guy going into next year instead of best-case scenario being the fourth guy this season behind the three consensus top tight ends in this draft — Eric Ebron from North Carolina, Jace Amaro from Texas Tech and then Austin Seferian-Jenkins from Washington.

“He’s intriguing, there’s no question. And Notre Dame has essentially become Tight End University. They’re the gold standard in recent years for producing pro tight ends.”

The Irish have produced four tight ends who were either first- or second-round picks in the past eight drafts, including first-rounder Tyler Eifert to the Cincinnati Bengals last season.

Niklas, who came to ND as an outside linebacker and played there as a freshman, finished the 2013 season as ND’s third-leading receiver. The 6-foot-7, 270-pounder from Fullerton, Calif., had 32 receptions for 498 yards and five TDs .

“He has the potential to be the best all-around tight end of the bunch when it comes to not only catching the ball, but also blocking,” Wright said. “He’s a guy who, I think, is going to test very well whenever he comes out. He just has a real impressive frame and chiseled physique.

“He’ll have Everett Golson at quarterback. And he’ll be one of the featured guys in the offense, with TJ Jones graduating. There’s definitely a lot to like about him, so I think it should be almost a no-brainer for him to go back for another season.”

Notre Dame running back George Atkinson III (4) has played his last game for the Irish and will enter the 2014 NFL Draft.