At the close of the 2013 Notre Dame Football season, Irish fans knew that George Atkinson III, Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas were receiving draft evaluations from the NFL. The expectation was that Tuitt would leave the program and that he had a legitimate shot of entering the draft as a potential first round pick. It was also expected that Atkinson III and Niklas would return for another season and would use the NFL evaluation as a source of feedback for improvement going into the 2014 season.
To the surprise of many, Atkinson III took the NFL feedback and entered the draft despite the fact that he was projected as being a late round draft pick at best. Atkinson leaves behind some eligibility and the possibility of improving his draft stock with one more season at Notre Dame.
Recent events though may have prompted Atkinson’s decision. It is well documented that George Atkinson, his father, did not like the way Kelly handled the running game this season and he publicly criticized Kelly for this. Then, just prior to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Atkinson III was suspended from the bowl game for violating team rules. These two things together created the impression that Atkinson III may have landed himself in Kelly’s doghouse.
However, Atkinson’s abrupt decision to enter the draft may have been because he recognized that, next season, without significant improvements to his game, he could find himself buried in a loaded running back depth chart.
By the season’s end, Atkinson III was third on the depth chart behind Tarean Folston, and Cam McDaniel. Folston seemed to emerge as Kelly’s number one back late in the season with McDaniel close behind being the most consistent back in the stable. Gregory Bryant is rising and nipping at Folston’s heals after losing the season to knee surgery. Folston and Bryant are players with outstanding potential and big play ability, and McDaniel is dependable so, Atkinson III could have been the odd man out next season.
As for Atkinson’s ability to return kicks, if Isaiah McKenzie keeps his commitment and overcomes some academic obstacles the Irish will have in McKenzie an explosive return man to replace Atkinson. McKenzie was arguably the most exciting, and electric player at the recent Under Armour All America Game and has many Irish fans thinking he may be the next Rocket Ismail.
Unlike the loss of Stephon Tuitt, losing George Atkinson III is certainly disappointing, but it should not have a profound impact on the program going forward. Atkinson III has provided Irish fans with some exciting moments over the years, but entering the draft at this time may have been his best option personally in light of the talent the Irish have returning for the 2014 season.