NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Was 2012 a disappointing season for George Atkinson III? The sophomore running back began last season with at least moderately high expectations, but his overall production ultimately fell below where many thought he might be by season's end. Still, don't ask Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford if Atkinson was "disappointing" last fall.
"For anyone to say that George Atkinson has been a disappointment - that's ridiculous," Alford said recently in defense of his pupil. "That's people who are not in the know who are making those comments. George is gonna be fine. Has he had to grow up? Yeah, he's had to grow up, but who doesn't?"
Atkinson finished 2012 as Notre Dame's third-leading rusher with 361 net yards. That yardage total was less than half of fellow running back Cierre Wood's 742 yard total and well behind converted slot receiver Theo Riddick's 917 yards.
"My carries dropped I guess and Cierre and Theo really ran away with the load," Atkinson said of his diminished production late last season. "I already realized that those guys were ahead of me and had seniority and had more experience than me. Just as long as we were winning I was happy."
Atkinson whetted the appetite and excitement level of Notre Dame fans when he exploded for a 56-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the 50-10 season-opening win over Navy. That run would prove to be the longest of the season though.
A 55-yard touchdown run in the Oct. 6 win over Miami in Chicago was Atkinson's final highlight of the season. It was the exclamation point on a 123-yard night to go along with Wood's 118 yards against the Hurricanes. Atkinson would total just 92 yards over the next eight games after that career-best night at Soldier Field.
Wood and Riddick are both headed for the NFL now and Atkinson finds himself in a near do or die situation this spring as he prepares for his junior season. His 60 career attempts and 388 yards make him the most experienced Fighting Irish back on the roster this spring. The thought of Atkinson's relative inexperience might be a scary thought to Irish fans, but Atkinson says he is unfazed.
"It's not a scary thought at all," Atkinson said of his elevated experience level. "We have a great group of talented guys in there. Any one of us, I believe, can take the load."
Atkinson is the leader of a running backs room that includes Will Mahone, Cam McDaniel and the now injured Amir Carlisle. His new seniority means he has to be more vocal now, and Atkinson says he was able to learn from the more vocal Wood-Riddick duo last year.
"Watching Cierre and Theo do it, you get a sense of how it's done," Atkinson said of leading the running backs room. "Coach is really helping me become that."
"That comes with becoming a leader for the group," Atkinson continued of his new leadership role. "I plan on just developing that leadership and just becoming that."
"He's looking around in the room and saying 'well, there's no one here that's played more than me'," Alford said of Atkinson's approach to leading the backs. "There's nobody in that room that's played more football than George Atkinson. I think now he understands those guys did a nice job leading in that room, Theo did and Cierre. I think he sees that's gone, so who's gonna take over that role?"
Atkinson weighed-in at 200 pounds as he entered his freshman season nearly two years ago. He is listed at 217 pounds on the most recent spring roster. He thinks he can still pack more muscle on his 6'1 frame as well. That growth is sure to help the junior to be as he looks to go from being a 'get to the corner home run threat' out of the backfield to someone who can also pound between the tackles for tough yards ala Riddick last season.
"I feel definitely a lot stronger than when I first came in here," Atkinson said of his bulked-up physique. "That definitely builds some confidence on the field. I've gained some weight, so that's helped a lot."
Alford says Atkinson is "not even close" to where he needs to be as an overall running back, but he is "on the right track". Part of what has him on that track is staying off the track this spring. Atkinson placed fifth in the 100-meter Big East Outdoor Track Championships last year, but he has given that up to focus on football and more intense weight room conditioning this spring.
The area where Alford says he has seen the most growth in Atkinson though is in his maturity level over the last two years.
"Just the way he's handling his approach to the game," Alford said of Atkinson. "(He is) studying film and asking questions and coming to practice locked-in and staying locked-in through the course of the practice and the course of a meeting. That's probably the biggest change I've seen in him thus far."
Gaining weight and learning the offense more "in depth" have been Atkinson's two main priorities since the offseason began. He has a good start on the former, while the latter is still in progress.
"Just the attention to the details of his position," Alford said of where Atkinson is continuing to soak up the overall art of his running back skills. "At that position that means there's a lot that we're gonna ask those guys to do. (Such as) how to line-up, where to line-up, the particulars of how to run a route - not just go run 10 yards and turn in, but how do you run the route."
Alford says Atkinson has made improvements catching the ball out of the backfield. Tracking the ball from the quarterback's hands to his own hands has been an area of emphasis.
"It's just the details of 'listen, I want you six inches wider than you are," Alford continued. "Those are details of the game that we're honing in on and in meetings I want him to speak the same language that I'm speaking."