Stephon Tuitt isn’t the only Notre Dame junior to forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL Draft. On Wednesday reports surfaced that running back George Atkinson was also going to leave Notre Dame early to pursue a career in the NFL.
When Stephon Tuitt announced that he was leaving for the NFL, hardly anyone was surprised. Even though Tuitt reportedly received a second round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee, many draft pundits project Tuitt to be a first round pick in April. Atkinson, on the other hand, is not projected to be a high pick. On the contrary, Atkinson received a late round grade from the Advisory Committee.
Atkinson’s future has been in doubt since he was suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl. “I haven’t made that decision yet,” head Coach Brian Kelly said when asked about the future of Atkinson following Notre Dame’s win over Rutgers.
Atkinson missing the Pinstripe Bowl was a rather unceremonious ending to a 2013 season that started with high hopes for the one time 4-star wide receiver recruit. Atkinson began the season at the top of Notre Dame’s running back depth chart. By the time the Irish closed out the regular season though, Atkinson gained just four carries netting a single yard in the season finale against Stanford.
Despite heading into the season as Notre Dame’s go to back, Atkinson was only able to run for 555 yards and 3 touchdowns with 148 yards coming in a single game – September’s home game versus Oklahoma. Atkinson only had double digit carries just once more in a single game the rest of the season.
A loaded depth chart at running back may have played a role in Atkinson’s decision to leave early. Tarean Folston began to establish himself as the top back heading into 2014, Cam McDaniel played a larger role in the offense down the stretch, and Notre Dame will get 2013 5-star running back Greg Bryant back from injury. Where Atkinson would have fit into the mix was very much into the air as the Irish begin the off-season.
Even with Atkinson’s level of production, his draft prospects likely won’t be as poor as Darius Walker’s were seven years ago. Walker surprised many by leaving Notre Dame after his junior season following back to back 1,000 yard seasons only to go undrafted in the 2007 NFL Draft. Unlike Walker though, Atkinson has speed to burn and value as a kick returner that can earn him a draft selection higher than his production might warrant.
Atkinson has the kind of speed and athleticism that are sure to impress scouts and GMs at the NFL combine. Speed has never been the problem for Atkinson though. Atkinson was unable to seize the opportunity in front of him in 2013 as Notre Dame’s feature back because he is still very much a work in progress at running back.
While consistency may have been a problem for Atkinson throughout his career, big plays weren’t. As a freshman Atkinson returned kick-offs for touchdowns against both Michigan State and USC. As a sophomore, Atkinson had touchdown runs of 56 and 55 yards against Navy and Pitt. This past year Atkinson’s electrifying 80 yard touchdown run against Oklahoma ignited the Notre Dame Stadium crowd and got the Irish back in the game.
Those big plays combined with the speed and athleticism Atkinson will flash at the combine will get Atkinson in a NFL camp at a bare minimum next fall.
Because of Notre Dame’s depth at running back, replacing Atkinson will not be nearly the daunting task that replacing Stephon Tuitt will be for Notre Dame in 2014. Atkinson’s departure will open up an additional scholarship for Notre Dame to use on either an additional 5th year senior in 2014 or for another member of the #GoldenArmy14 that Notre Dame is set to sign next month.