Atkinson making mark on kick returns

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- George Atkinson III's dad retired on top.

George Jr., a former all-pro defensive back with the Oakland Raiders, raced George III and twin brother Josh only once, when his sons were around nine years old.

"He actually beat us," George Atkinson III said. "I hate to admit it, but I was really young."

Father never raced son after that. Not that he would have had much of a chance, anyway.

Seven games into his freshman season, George Atkinson III has already returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, something only three other FBS players have done this year. The first-year player out of Stockton, Calif., ranks ninth in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 30.37 yards per return.

And he is already halfway toward his combination of four kicks and punts returned for scores at Granada High School.

"They stop kicking to you once in a while," he joked of his prep days.

Atkinson's 96-yard touchdown late in the second quarter Saturday breathed life into a Notre Dame team that saw itself fall behind 17-0 to USC. The defense then made a quick stop and the offense drove for a field goal to make it a seven-point game before halftime.

Against Michigan State five weeks earlier, Atkinson's 89-yard kick return in the first quarter followed a Spartans touchdown and gave the Irish an early 14-3 lead, one they never relinquished in their first win of the season.

"Going back to Michigan State, that was my second return, so that really builds trust in your blocks," Atkinson said. "And they do a great job out there holding out the blocks and things like that, and getting me onto the kicker.

"You only get to the kicker so many times, so I know you wanna win when you get there."

That breakaway speed has become a trademark early in his career, and it's something Brian Kelly said separates him from other kick returners.

"Obviously there's no substitute for that," Kelly said. "But he's also got pretty good vision. He's been able to see blocks, the setup of blocks, and you've got to have great vision as a kick returner as well. So I think the combination of the very good vision, we've done a nice job schematically of blocking, and then that second-level speed."

Added special teams coach Mike Elston: "He's a very rugged runner. He doesn't look to make a lot of moves and he's an extremely approachable kid; he's gonna do it exactly how we ask him to do it. And he's got great vision."

Atkinson, whose future is at running back, knew any chance he had to make an impact early would come on special teams.

Because of his success there so far, he has had the chance on multiple occasions to look up at the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard and see his mark.

"You definitely start thinking then, 'I'm here, it happened,' " Atkinson said of his touchdowns. "So it was a great feeling celebrating with your teammates. I always like looking up at the scoreboard looking at seven. You got seven points up there because of special teams, and it's a great feeling."