SOUTH BEND, Ind. – 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."