The Notre Dame Fighting Irish got all the way to the BCS National Championship game last season before suffering their first loss at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide. A major component of that team was the running game on offense which much now replace its top two running backs in 2013. The onus will now fall on George Atkinson III to carry the load next fall, and he’s giving coaches reason to be confident this spring.
He’ll have some big shoes to fill. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood were the pillars of the running game in 2012, combining for 1,659 yards and nine touchdowns. Atkinson finished third behind them last fall, rushing for 361 yards on 51 carries with five touchdowns. He has shown some toughness in spring practice that will be needed as the primary running back in 2013 and is a playmaker out of the backfield.
His biggest growth this spring, however, has come in the passing game. In 2012, Atkinson caught just two passes for four yards. Running backs as a whole, however, were a major part of the Irish passing game. Riddick finished No. 3 on the team in receptions last season catching 36 passes for 370 yards and a pair of touchdowns. For Atkinson to take control of the No. 1 running back job, he had to step up his game in as a receiver.
This spring, he’s done just that. Head coach Brian Kelly has singled out Atkinson’s work in improving his hands, saying he is now a guy the coaches feel confident throwing the ball to out of the backfield. That is a major step forward from 2012 when Kelly said the team was concerned with the kind of ball skills he had when trying to catch the football.
Atkinson’s improvement this spring will go a long in determining just how much of the running game will run through him in 2013. From the way spring practice has gone so far, it looks like he will be the man in 2013.