Notre Dame RB Atkinson answers call to run tougher

Running back George Atkinson III cut left behind a block, burst

through the hole, raced past an Oklahoma defensive back and ran

untouched for an 80-yard touchdown. It was a highlight for Notre

Dame in what ended up being a loss.

The Fighting Irish coaches were happiest with his shorter runs:

They have been on the 6-1, 220-pound junior all season, saying they

wanted him to show more toughness. Although Atkinson, the son of

former Oakland Raiders great George Atkinson Jr., has been listed

as the starting running back all season, he’s started only two

games and the game against Oklahoma was the first time this season

he led the team in rushing or carries.

”We didn’t think George ran physical enough. We told him that.

We told him if he wanted to be the starter, that he can’t get

tackled by his ankles. He can’t be the guy that goes down,” coach

Brian Kelly said.

The coaches put together a videotape showing Atkinson examples

of where they thought he went down too easily, Kelly said.

”Isn’t this a tackle you should be running through? Shouldn’t

you be getting through this tackle? How did you get tackled here?”

Kelly said. ”So it got to the point where we had to physically sit

him down and show him clip after clip after clip. These are tackles

that you must run through. They can’t tackle you. You’re 220

pounds.”

Atkinson got the message about the need to run harder, although

he said he couldn’t recall the film session Kelly talked about,

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

Atkinson, who was timed in the 100-meter dash at 10.36 at the

Big East track championships in 2012, responded by proving he can

do more than run fast. In the third quarter, on second-and-2 from

the 34, Atkinson took the handoff, ran over Oklahoma defensive back

Aaron Colvin at the 39 and rumbled for another 9 yards before a

linebacker and defensive back brought him down after a 14-yard

gain.

Atkinson had only 37 yards at halftime, but the 80-yard TD run

on Notre Dame’s first offensive play in the second half got him

going as he finished with a career-high 148 yards rushing. Atkinson

credited the improved play on following his coaches’ advice of

running less upright, something they’ve been reminding him of since

he arrived in South Bend.

”I was running with my pad level lower and trying to get the

extra yards,” he said.

The performance against Oklahoma wasn’t perfect.

”We feel like he missed a couple of cuts here and there,”

Kelly said. ”But as coaches, it’s gratifying to see the

development of a young man like George Atkinson.”

The question now is: Will it carry over to Saturday when the

Irish (3-2) face No. 22 Arizona State (3-1) in Arlington, Texas?

Last season Atkinson rushed for 123 yards against Miami in the

fifth game of the season – and ran for 92 yards the rest of the

season. In fact he heads into Saturday with 269 yards running,

exactly the same amount he had after five games this season,

although it took him nine more carries to accomplish that this

year.

None of the Irish backs know how many carries they will be

getting. So far this year, the Irish coaches have been going with

whoever is running best. Amir Carlisle led the Irish in rushing the

first two games, then Cam McDaniel the next two, then Atkinson last

week.

Atkinson knows he has to keep proving himself.

”It doesn’t mean anything if I don’t come out next weekend and

try to do the same or do better,” he said.

Kelly is hopeful Atkinson understands he has to make it hard on

defenders to bring him down on every carry.

”He’s got to do that every week,” Kelly said. ”He shouldn’t

be tackled by his ankles.”