Chicago Colleges: George Atkinson III

NFL dream a balancing act for Kelly

May, 21, 2014
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OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- Brian Kelly was pleased with Notre Dame's draft showing two weeks ago. His comments before the draft had suggested that he was less-than-pleased with every former Irish player in the draft.

But Kelly says that there is a middle ground, as he is happy to help his players pursue the NFL, so long as the allure of the pro dream doesn't cloud their judgments while in school.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIStephon Tuitt drew some ire from Brian Kelly for his NFL draft decision.
"It was a matter of priorities for me. It was just a matter of making sure that the priorities were placed in the right perspective," Kelly said. "I have no problem talking about the NFL and making sure that it's the dream, if that's your dream, that we keep that dream alive for you, and that we provide you every opportunity to get there. I just felt that maybe that the priority maybe got pushed out of what I believe to be the pecking order."

That pecking order, he said, is a degree, a playing career with the Irish and then, if everything breaks right, the NFL.

The Irish's eight draftees this season featured three underclassmen, with Kelly clearly irked by the decisions of juniors Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III to turn pro. He mentioned as much on national signing day, saying that he needed to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL, and that he would have a serious problem recruiting someone whose intentions were to spend just three years in school.

Kelly's intent, he explained recently, is the same as others in his position. Notre Dame, after all, made waves this past season by sending top recruiting targets "Pots of Gold" -- 477 pieces of mail to represent what had been the school's number of NFL draft picks.

"If I feel like you're not playing for Notre Dame, and you're playing for your NFL career before you're playing for Notre Dame, that's where the rub is for me," Kelly said. "So if I get a little bit off on comments about a guy, it could be because that NFL is starting to overtake playing for Notre Dame. It's not just me, though. Every college football coach in the BCS has got to deal with the same thing, just have to be very careful with it, you have to be very good with your players about it.

"But it's a fine line, it's a balancing act. You want what's best for your player, right? Because you want his career to continue and have a chance to play in the NFL, but you want what's best for Notre Dame, too. So you have to be very careful with the two. I just don't want that to be NFL, then Notre Dame."

Coming off the Irish's best draft turnout since they had 10 players picked in the 1994 draft, Kelly -- who has now had four first-rounders picked at Notre Dame -- sees the pro results as validation of what he's been building during his five-year run in South Bend, Ind. Only LSU (nine) had more players drafted this year than Notre Dame, which was tied with Alabama for the second-best showing two weeks ago.

"I think more than anything else is that we're developing our players. That the players are developing, and I think the NFL really likes the program and what we're doing within the program," Kelly said. "They like the way that they're being developed from a mental and physical standpoint. They believe that they can take the rigors of being in the NFL, from the year-round conditioning, from the way we practice, from the way they prepare. I think they look at it in totality, they see everything.

"And look, that doesn't mean you're going to have eight guys every year, but when they see a guy that they think can play, they're going to take a shot at a kid from Notre Dame."

Historic draft weekend for Notre Dame

May, 12, 2014
May 12
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Notre Dame walked away from NFL draft weekend with eight of its former players getting picked, tied with Alabama for the second most of any school in the country, behind LSU's nine. The eight picks also marked the most in a single draft for the Irish in 20 years, as they had 10 draftees in 1994.

In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.

Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.

It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.

Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.

DRAFTED

LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)

DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)

TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)

NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)

LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)

LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)

CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)

WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders

LB Dan Fox, New York Giants

LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns

QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins

NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs

C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints

Up for debate: Notre Dame vs. Pac-12

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
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Notre Dame kicks off the first of three games this year against the Pac-12 with Saturday’s showdown against No. 22 Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. What should you be looking for? Glad you asked. Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell talk it over.

Matt Fortuna: Arizona State is a newcomer to the Pac-12 portion of Notre Dame's schedule this year, Kevin. The Sun Devils have looked great against USC, not so great against Stanford and, well, fortuitous in their win over Wisconsin. They put up 62 points last week against what was believed to be a good Trojans defense, getting Lane Kiffin fired in the process. So I guess we'll start there, given Notre Dame's defensive struggles so far this season: What makes Todd Graham's unit so explosive offensively, and what do the Irish need to really keep an eye on Saturday to keep the points down?

Kevin Gemmell: Tempo, tempo, tempo. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who Graham trusts to run the show offensively, uses “tempo” as a verb, not an adjective. As in, he wants to tempo teams into submission.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriNotre Dame will have to find a way to slow down D.J. Foster and the Arizona State offense.
They want to have as many possessions as possible. And they get that with a fast-paced attack that stretches and then compacts a defense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is off to another outstanding start, and a huge reason for that is the addition of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer who already has 31 catches for 433 yards. He gives Kelly that sideline threat the Sun Devils were lacking last season, and Kelly has been fantastic at spotting him on the outside shoulder and letting him make plays. Strong has been targeted 51 times, so it’s only a 60-percent completion rate when they look to him. But when he does catch it, it’s usually for a substantial gain; he averages 14 yards per reception.

They use running backs Marion Grice (12 touchdowns already!) and D.J. Foster in creative ways in the screen game and like to splt Foster out into the slot. Tight end Chris Coyle has also emerged as one of the top players at his position in the country.

How about the Irish? Things don’t seem to be going as swimmingly as they did last year. Only 25.4 points per game. ASU is going to blitz early and often. What does Notre Dame have to do to get its offense moving in the right direction?

Matt Fortuna: It will get overlooked because Notre Dame lost Saturday, but the Irish were finally able to establish a ground game, tallying 220 rushing yards against the Sooners. They had eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark as a team just once before, in the opener against Temple. Junior George Atkinson III, who was the No. 1 back entering the season, finally played like it, lowering his shoulder and looking more like a downhill runner. He finished with a career-high 148 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

Aside from not turning it over on their first two possessions and falling behind 14-0, it is very important for the Irish to continue to establish the ground threat early, as they often can become predictable in second- and third-and-long with a non-mobile quarterback under center in Tommy Rees, though Brian Kelly did insert Andrew Hendrix in for some zone-read, change-of-pace packages against the Sooners. Receivers must run better routes, too. TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels have been big playmakers, but they both had route-running miscues Saturday that were costly. Kelly has said that ordinary things need to be done better. The Irish also regularly play three true freshmen wideouts (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).

I'm interested in ASU's defense, particularly Will Sutton. Before the season, everyone had pegged this as a matchup of the two best interior defensive linemen in the country, between Sutton and Notre Dame's Louis Nix. It's been hard to gauge Nix's performance so far, as the Irish have faced some mobile quarterbacks and quick-strike offenses that have utilized the short passing game early to essentially take the line out of the game. What challenges do Sutton and the rest of the Sun Devils' defense present?

Kevin Gemmell: They like to blitz a lot. Todd Graham fashions his defense as a “hybrid attacking defense,” meaning at times they’ll substitute speed for bulk to create pressure from anywhere on the field.

Sutton hadn’t made much of an impact the first few games for a couple of reasons: One, they were facing mostly run-based power teams like Wisconsin and Stanford; two, he’s been seeing a lot of double and triple teams. Makes sense. His first step is so quick that it precedes his reputation. But he finally broke out against the Trojans with two tackles for a loss and a sack. I think, as the season pushes on, we’re going to see more pressure from the front seven based on the teams they’ll face.

That said, you have to look out for safety Alden Darby, who is coming off a fantastic performance against the Trojans. He had two picks (one returned for a touchdown) and has 19 tackles on the year. Hybrid linebacker Carl Bradford is explosive and Chris Young has really emerged, leading the team with 29 tackles.

The front seven is a little undersized, but it’s quick and if your protections aren’t set, someone will get missed with as much as the Sun Devils like to blitz.

Now that the Sun Devils are back in the top 25, it’s a huge game for them to keep some of that momentum going on a national stage. The Pac-12 is already coming off of the nonconference season with a 29-4 record.

Notre Dame, however, seems to be scrambling to salvage its national reputation. And with three games against the Pac-12, which many believe is the deepest conference in college football, it seems the Irish could restore some of that lost credibility. How do you see them matching up with the now Lane-less Trojans or Stanford in the season finale?

Matt Fortuna: Based on everything we have seen from both Notre Dame and Stanford so far, that matchup might not be a very pretty one for the Irish. Fortunately for them, it is not until the regular-season finale, meaning they have plenty of time to fix their issues in the six games before then.

The bigger question pertains to what kind of team the Irish will be heading into that matchup in Palo Alto, a status that will largely be dictated by their performances in both the ASU and USC games. The Irish need to get it together, fast, and Rees has to avoid a repeat performance of this past Saturday (three first-half interceptions) and get the offense going again. In theory, that should be enough to beat a USC team that looks to be reeling after the firing of its coach, though that kind of midseason move can have different lingering effects, good or bad. It's not like the Trojans aren't talented, and it's not like they won't be up for another night game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Still, I say the Irish win that one, especially coming off a bye. And especially with the threat of falling under .500, as a loss to ASU would make them 3-3 on the season. Notre Dame might be the better team, but the Irish have shown me little over the last four weeks that suggests that they are capable of keeping up with the Sun Devils' offense.

So that's an early 1-2 prediction for Notre Dame against the Pac-12 this season. What say you, Kevin?

Kevin Gemmell: I’m an ASU lean right now simply because of how explosive that offense can be. And if the Sun Devils can fix a couple of assignment issues on defense, I think they have the firepower to be a top-20, maybe even top-15 team. But they have to show they can do it away from home. A neutral field setting provides a nice opportunity. It’s close enough for their fans to travel, but it’s not a true road game.

As of today, we’re in lock-step when it comes to the Stanford matchup. The Cardinal offense is looking better and better each week. I thought back in April that Tyler Gaffney was going to be a game-changer for Stanford, and so far he’s shown that he is. That season finale could also have huge BCS implications, and I don’t see the Cardinal tossing one away at home in a game that could potentially lock them into a fourth straight BCS game.

As for USC, well, who knows? Haven’t heard any USC players come out and condemn the firing of Lane Kiffin. Maybe this move reinvigorates them? The Trojans certainly have talent. But as of today (as always, I reserve the right to change my mind), I’d go with Notre Dame at home.

Golson's departure impacts ground game

June, 10, 2013
6/10/13
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Ric Tapia/Icon SMIEverett Golson's departure from Notre Dame will have an effect on the rushing attack.
The loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson is major cause for concern at Notre Dame.

Though the offense in 2011 was slightly better with Tommy Rees at quarterback (2.3 points per drive) than it was with Golson last season (2.2 points per drive), the loss of Golson's rushing ability will be an issue.

Golson's departure means the Irish will be without their top three rushers from a year ago (Theo Riddick was a senior in 2012 and Cierre Wood left school early for the NFL). The only returning contributor from the backfield is George Atkinson III. He’ll be joined by USC transfer Amir Carlisle (who missed 2012 due to injury) and Greg Bryant (No. 2 RB in 2013 ESPN 150).

After a slow start last season, Golson and the Irish rushing attack came into their own in October. The team averaged 3.8 yards per rush in its first four games, but that average jumped to 5.3 from that point forward -- and that includes the 19-rush, 32-yard performance against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

Starting with the game against Miami on Oct. 6, more designed runs were called for Golson. He also took it upon himself to pick up yards with his legs more often. Golson's designed runs went from 2.0 to 5.1 per game, and his scrambles went from 1.2 to 2.9 per game.

In the first four games of the season, Golson rushed a total of 13 times for one first down and two touchdowns. After that, 23 of his 64 rushes resulted in a first down and he reached the end zone four times.

Rees simply does not have this element in his game. He has exactly one rushing play in his career longer than 8 yards -- a 12-yard run against Tulsa during his freshman season -- and has never had more than 6 net rushing yards in a game.

Nix steals show again as Irish finish spring

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Big Louis Nix entered the media room in Notre Dame Stadium and was immediately intercepted by sports information director Michael Bertsch.

"You know quarterbacks go to the podium," Bertsch said.

Up Nix went to the center of the cramped room, facing a throng of media members who generally hang on his every word anyway, given the fourth-year junior's penchant for saying whatever in the world is on his mind at that moment.

One such instance came early in the 2012 season, when Nix explained how younger brother Kenneth, one of his 13 siblings, had told classmates during a presentation in Jacksonville, Fla., that his big brother was the Fighting Irish's quarterback.

Nix had no idea where that idea came from, but then joked that he would love to be inserted as a Wildcat-only signal caller in the "Irish Chocolate" package, an ode to his nickname.

His dream came to fruition during the fourth quarter of Notre Dame's Blue-Gold spring game Saturday before 31,652 fans, as Nix lined up in the backfield for a two-point conversion following the game's only touchdown. He took the shotgun snap and galloped into the end zone untouched for the score, continuing the roll he has been on in the past year.

"I really am a quarterback," Nix said. "I told you guys it would happen and it did."

That was Louis Nix being Louis Nix; as he provided a refreshing spark to a ho-hum exhibition on a 38-degree April afternoon. He was Notre Dame's best defensive player on the nation's biggest stage this past Jan. 7 against Alabama, and he was the anchor of a defense that happened to feature the Heisman Trophy runner-up.

By playing even bigger than his out-sized personality -- a trait that turned his every word into a soundbite and made his video news series a YouTube sensation -- Nix faced a decision that would have changed the lives of everyone back inside his family's three-bedroom home.

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsLouis Nix capped off Notre Dame's spring game with a two-point conversion in the Blue-Gold Game.
Last spring Nix publicly expressed feelings of homesickness, as he fell into a rut and lost his spot on the first team to Kona Schwenke. But the film, television and theatre major thought back to senior night four years ago at Raines (Fla.) High School, when he was the only player who took the field without a loved one. His mom, Stephanie Wingfield had a shift at a hospital cafeteria that night and cried when she found out her son had taken the field alone. She begged him to stay in college, earn his degree and celebrate senior day with her.

The decision to stay ensures that the senior day moment will happen. The play that highlighted Saturday's scrimmage served as proof that he is on the right track in the classroom.

Nix's two-point conversion was the result of an academic wager he made with head coach Brian Kelly, who credited the conversion to offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and his new responsibilities as play-caller heading into the 2013 season.

"He surprised me, and so I paid up," Kelly said of Nix. "I said, 'What do you want?' I figured he would want something. He came up: 'I want to score a touchdown in the spring game.' As you know, we had a hard time scoring touchdowns in the spring game and I didn't think that was going to come to reality."

So Nix went up to quarterback Malik Zaire with 14:05 left in the contest, ordering the early-enrollee to get him to the promised land. Six plays and four minutes, 55 seconds later, C.J. Prosise was in the end zone with a 35-yard touchdown reception, allowing the blue-jerseyed Nix to step into the huddle with his white-jerseyed teammates. It set off a minor social media celebration of a FAT GUY TOUCHDOWN. (Or, in this case, a FAT GUY CONVERSION.)

Is this something Temple needs to scheme against come the teams' Aug. 31 opener?

"That's what all teams need to be scared of. Everybody needs to be scared of Irish Chocolate," Nix said.

"Everyone," he continued, staring at the reporter who had inquired, "including you."

The defense charged with stopping the play certainly seemed scared, though it adjusted enough to keep the new quarterback from beating them with his arm.

"I just made a few checks or whatever. You couldn't hear them. They were silent checks," Nix said. "I just told them where to line up, give me a nice pass-block. My O-line did a great job, that's why I was successful."

Or simply because he looked up, stared at nothing but daylight and entered a state of shock, with linebacker Kendall Moore getting the heck out of the way once Nix committed to running straight ahead.

"I saw fear in his eyes," Nix said of Moore.

George Atkinson III said afterward that Everett Golson should worry about losing his job. Fellow defenders expressed relief that they will never have to face Nix again.

But that might not be the case, not if Nix continues to ride this surge.

"It's a dream of mine to happen [in a game], hopefully it does -- hopefully Coach thinks I can handle the ball," he said.

"I'm 305 right now," the listed 347-pounder deadpanned. "If I gain a few pounds, maybe he'll just hand me the ball off."

Bold predictions for Notre Dame in 2013

January, 15, 2013
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It's never too early to look really, really, really smart. (Or not so smart.) Here are a few fearless predictions for next season, all of which I will stand by through thick and thin ... obviously.

1. Everett Golson will be the Week 1 starter ... but his leash may be even shorter than it was this past season. Tommy Rees is there waiting for the two-minute drill when called upon, but with Andrew Hendrix seasoned another year and with Gunner Kiel's redshirt season now out of the way, coach Brian Kelly is quick to insert a new guy whenever the opportunity presents itself. Nonetheless, Golson will enter spring and fall camp as the No. 1 guy and will emerge from both as the winner.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillEverett Golson will begin the season as the starter, but there's plenty of competition behind him.
2. Notre Dame will make a BCS bowl game, but yes, will lose a few regular-season games. The schedule is easier than this past year's, but trips to Michigan and Stanford certainly present big challenges, not to mention a number of potential trap games that almost tripped the Irish up in 2012. The Irish had ridiculously strong leadership in 2012 that proved to be the difference in a number of close contests. Despite having what would appear to be a more talented team in 2013, it is asking an awful lot of this group to run the table for a second straight season.

3. Stephon Tuitt will break Justin Tuck's sack record and have a very tough decision to make at season's end. The defensive end and his mother have said in published reports that they aren't thinking about an NFL future just yet, but that will become harder to avoid after Tuitt takes yet another step in 2013. Following a 12-sack sophomore campaign that Tuitt deemed a "learning year," the 6-foot-6, 303-pounder will add a couple of more, breaking Tuck's single-season Irish record of 13.5 and becoming a universally accepted first-round pick should he choose to enter the draft after his junior year.

4. Greg Bryant will be the No. 1 RB by midseason. There is a logjam in Notre Dame's backfield, but none are all that proven. George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel have performed well in complementary roles, but neither have handled anything close to the workload that a No. 1 back requires. While the carries will likely be divvied up among those two, USC transfer Amir Carlisle and redshirt freshman William Mahone, Bryant's size and speed fit the mold of an every-down guy, and his first year will go a long way in proving that he is the future answer in the Notre Dame backfield.

5. Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will be the returning fifth-year guys. I suppose this would be a bold prediction if I gave you an announcement date. But considering we didn't officially hear about last year's fifth-year guys until the spring, I won't be holding my breath.

Fate of Irish offense in Golson's hands now

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson wanted a visor for his helmet. Brian Kelly gave him much more than that.

In naming Golson as Notre Dame's starting quarterback Thursday, the third-year Irish coach is showing a commitment to stabilizing the position once and for all, entrusting the car keys to the guy who ultimately can take the spread offense to the level everyone's been waiting to see since Kelly's arrival in 2010.

"You're starting DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown, two guys that are gonna play a lot for us on the perimeter that are first-time starters, and then George Atkinson didn't play very much at running back. You're gonna see a lot of him," Kelly said. "Troy Niklas. I could go on and on. So Everett Golson, there's four or five guys right there that are gonna be impactful in the games. So yeah, certainly there's gonna be some learning there. But one thing we don't have a lot of time on is that curve. We gotta come out running and doing our thing right away."

That starts with the redshirt freshman whose strong arm and nimble feet make him the ideal man behind this wheel. It's not like Notre Dame's offense is composed of all first- or second-year players, either: The Irish return seniors Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, in addition to the nation's best tight end, Tyler Eifert, and an offensive line that is as solid as they come.

Those weapons present a perfect opportunity to help break Golson in, as will the relatively tame defenses he is set to face in the season's first two weeks -- Navy on Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland, and Purdue the following Saturday in South Bend.

"I would say what makes me more comfortable back there is just my teammates," Golson said. "You talk about the veterans, you’ve got the O-line, you’ve got veteran wide receivers. Like I said, the quarterbacks out there just helping me. That’s made me more comfortable."

Mistakes will come because they always do, especially for first-year players. Golson, calm and collected in facing every badgering reporter's question so far, showed a glimpse of some of that child-like giddiness when describing how he found out he won the job.

Golson had wanted a visor for his helmet before Wednesday's practice, an item Kelly said he would get once he was officially named the starter. Golson rushed over to the Romano Family Locker Room before class Thursday, only to see the same old gap between his facemask and helmet.

"I came back in [after class] and it was just there," he said of the visor. "I was kind of happy about that."

If Golson lives up to his potential, those happy times will continue for Notre Dame.

Best of Notre Dame's spring

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
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Best spring game performance: Everett Golson, considered the biggest mystery in the four-man quarterback battle entering the spring, was 11 of 15 for 120 yards and two scores. He carried it six times for 25 yards. Most importantly, he was the only quarterback to not turn the ball over.

Best overall unit: The running back/slot receiver group coached by Tony Alford is loaded with talent. Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III made big play after big play in the spring game (though Atkinson will have to protect the ball better after fumbling twice). We all know what Cierre Wood is capable of after a 1,000-yard season while splitting carries with Jonas Gray in 2011. And we might even see a bit of Robby Toma in the backfield, though the senior remains an invaluable pass-catcher for the Irish.

Best position battle: Other than under center? Let's go with the right side of the offensive line, where Mike Golic Jr., Nick Martin and Christian Lombard look to have the inside track for the two open spots.

Biggest surprise (good): John Goodman raised some eyebrows with his play this spring, earning most improved player on the offensive side of the ball and getting to be a captain for the spring game. Coach Brian Kelly said he's been the go-to receiver this spring, and Goodman wants to reward the staff's faith in him after he was invited back for a fifth year.

Biggest surprise (bad): Aaron Lynch has transferred to South Florida, leaving the Irish down a man on the defensive line. Kapron Lewis-Moore, a previous starter, will slide back into Lynch's role, but the loss of an elite pass-rusher who had no trouble bursting onto the scene as a freshman is a blow to the team.

How ND's title odds have dipped

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
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The odds of Notre Dame appearing in the BCS title game have fallen from 22-1 to 25-1 following the spring season. Whether the Tommy Rees situation will affect that line again remains to be seen. For now, our Travis Haney takes a look at how the Irish's title odds may have taken a hit Insider, along with five other teams that have changed Vegas' (or the bettors') minds lately. (Odds courtesy of Bovado.)
A better starting point for the Irish might be the odds to get into a BCS game for the first time since 2007 (and that bludgeoning at the hands of LSU). What's fair there? 10-1? 12-1? Somewhere in there?

This BCS title number could have shifted in the past few days, in the wake of Tommy Rees' arrest. Then again, the Rees issue could help Notre Dame's odds, seeing as how redshirt freshman Everett Golson was the standout in the spring scrimmage. But until Golson gets some real game action, it's impossible to know whether he's the real deal -- at least enough to start factoring it into the Irish's season expectations. The same goes for George Atkinson, who wowed fans with 124 yards in the spring game. But he rushed for just 27 in 2011.

Among other factors, such as pesky things like enough talent and depth, it's unlikely that the Irish could skate through their schedule -- one that includes Oklahoma, in addition to mainstays such as Michigan and USC -- without a setback or three.

The Irish's 2012 opponents haven't done much this spring to affect their standing one way or another: Oklahoma has jumped from 18-1 to 10-1, but Michigan has fallen from 18-1 to 25-1.

Roster breakdown: Special teams

March, 30, 2012
3/30/12
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The third and final part of our breakdown of Notre Dame's 2012 roster wraps up today with the special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The (key) players: Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk, Jordan Cowart, Theo Riddick, John Goodman, George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Austin Collinsworth, Chris Salvi, Nick Tausch

The incoming: Scott Daly

The breakdown: New tight ends coach Scott Booker is now in charge of special teams, though the entire staff will take a more hands-on approach following a 2011 campaign in which the Irish averaged 0.3 yards per punt return before the bowl game. In addition to kickoffs, Brindza will likely be the Irish's field goal kicker as well following the loss of David Ruffer. Turk improved as the season went on last season and figures to be the starting punter again. Atkinson returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns last season and may see more action in the backfield this season, so it remains to be seen if his duties could be extended to the punt return game as well. Same goes for Collinsworth, who was solid on both the kick-return and kick-coverage teams but will likely see extended time at safety following the graduation of Harrison Smith. Carlisle is out for the spring with a broken ankle, but he returned kicks for USC at times last season and could possibly be a factor on either return team.

Riddick's struggles returning punts last season are well-documented, but the staff likely isn't ready to give up on the big-play potential of which he is capable. Goodman had the sure hands and was basically back there last season as a safety net to prevent anything bad from happening, and the Irish hope that won't be needed again this year. (Goodman is in line to play a bigger role offensively, too.) Salvi earned a scholarship for being such a force on both kickoff teams, and Daly is the second scholarship long-snapper in school history, likely backing up Cowart this season before taking over the reins in 2013.

Notre Dame's to-do list for 2012

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
4:00
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With the season over, it is time to take a look at which areas Notre Dame must shore up entering 2012.

Figure out the quarterback picture. Tommy Rees is 12-4 as a starter, but his season ended on a sour note, with two consecutive losses. Andrew Hendrix showed promise in limited action but only started one drive in the Champs Sports Bowl when given the chance to split time with Rees. Everett Golson redshirted. And there's apparently a new kid in town. As important as the decision coach Brian Kelly makes is the communication process with his pupils, as none of the two or three eventual non-starters wants to feel misled, which could force an uncomfortable dynamic for all moving forward. Regardless, Notre Dame finds itself with a good problem to have.

Establish a punt return game. Michael Floyd's 41-yard punt return in the Champs Sports Bowl was notable for the fact it was 38 yards more than what the Irish netted returning punts all season long. The normally sure-handed John Goodman is reportedly back for a fifth year, but Kelly has said that Notre Dame needs more of a gamebreaker back there to make a difference in returns. Whether that potential gamebreaker can be Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth or someone unforeseen is anyone's guess.

Retool the secondary. At least three starters are gone from last season's unit, including captain Harrison Smith. On a team that will face elite quarterbacks like Matt Barkley and Landry Jones next season, this is crucial. Zeke Motta and likely Jamoris Slaughter return, with reserves such as Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood and Collinsworth potentially competing for starting spots.

Notre Dame helmet stickers: Champs Sports Bowl

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
10:36
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Here are the players who stood out in defeat, as Notre Dame closes it season with an 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl to finish 8-5.

Manti Te'o: The junior could have improved his draft stock had he not already announced his intentions to come back. Te'o had a game-high 13 tackles and forced a fumble that Zeke Motta recovered and returned 29 yards for the lone score of the first half.

Michael Floyd: The senior who re-wrote the Irish record books impressed in his finale, making a ridiculous 5-yard touchdown grab and returning the game's first punt 41 yards, which was 38 yards more than the Irish had amassed on punt returns the entire season. A dropped deep ball and an upper body injury that forced him to sit out much of the second half does not dent the night he had. The game captain had five catches for 41 yards.

Tyler Eifert: The junior tight end still has not decided on his future yet, but if this was his last college game, he went out in style. Eifert caught a game-high six passes for 90 yards, repeatedly making Florida State pay over the middle.

Jamoris Slaughter: The hybrid linebacker/safety recorded a pair of sacks, which were two more than he had his entire career entering the game. He helped a pass rush that sacked E.J. Manuel five times and made life difficult for the Seminoles offense for three quarters.

Aaron Lynch/Stephon Tuitt: The freshmen ends were a force to be reckoned with all night, combining for eight tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and four hurries.

George Atkinson III: The freshman return man had a 37-yard kick return to open the second half, setting up Notre Dame for its first and only touchdown drive. He then made a saving tackle on Lamarcus Joyner on the ensuing kick return, which went for 77 yards and set up an FSU field goal.

Irish prep for Luck, Stanford

November, 22, 2011
11/22/11
5:18
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Notre Dame enters Saturday's regular-season finale at Stanford as an underdog for the first time this season. But Brian Kelly is not quite playing the us-against-the-world card this week.

"I don't know that I see ourselves as a spoiler, to be quite honest with you," Kelly said Tuesday. "We have a great deal of respect for Stanford, and they've earned everything. They're a darn good football team. We see this as just another opportunity to play our last regular-season game. I know our guys are excited. It's a relevant game in November and it's on national television. That gets 18-21-year-olds' attention more than being a spoiler so to speak."

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI"It's a relevant game in November and it's on national television," Brian Kelly said. "That gets 18-21-year-olds' attention more than being a spoiler so to speak."
The stakes are high, but they are also unclear. The No. 6 Cardinal (10-1) are likely playing for a spot in a BCS-bowl game. The No. 22 Irish? At 8-3, there is a very remote chance they could jump eight spots and become BCS-bowl eligible themselves with a win -- with an emphasis on the very remote part.

More pressing, however, is the validation that would come with a road win over a top-10 opponent in the second year of a new regime, which would also give the Irish a chance at a 10-win season.

They finished last season on a four-game winning streak to go 8-5.

"Well, it's still about, for us, you know, preparing the right way and then performing on Saturdays," Kelly said. "I've said this a number of times. I like the way we've prepared. We haven't performed on Saturdays the way we need to consistently. We're showing that at times.

"This is just another one of those — it's not a referendum on our season, but it's another step towards where we want to be in consistency in November. We have done very well in November, and we want to continue to build on that in this game against Stanford."

Notre Dame has won all six of its November games since Kelly took over. The second-year Irish coach has actually won 16 straight regular-season contests in November and December, dating back to 2007, when he coached Cincinnati.

He has already faced quarterback Andrew Luck, the likely top NFL draft pick and a strong Heisman Trophy contender.

Luck has completed more than 70 percent of his passes this season, throwing for 2,937 yards, 31 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, and he will likely be playing the final home game of his career.

In a 37-14 win at Notre Dame last season, Luck was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

"Boy's under pressure more than anything else," Kelly said. "Some of the throws that he made against us last year. We brought an allout blitz inside the 15-yard line, and we had a freeblitzer and he just kept back-pedalling and hit a tight end on a choice route in the end zone.

"That's poise under pressure. He has the ability to make the throws when he's under duress as well. And to have that, you've got to have the skill, but also the utmost confidence in your ability. He has all this intrinsic things necessary to be a great quarterback."

The onus on Notre Dame's quarterback, Tommy Rees, may be heavier this week. Starting running back Jonas Gray's season is over after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Saturday, and a pair of unproven freshmen — George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel — will back-up junior Cierre Wood.

Freshman end Stephon Tuitt's status is uncertain after missing the last game with an illness as well.

"It's huge," Rees said after Saturday's game. "To go finish November strong, finish the season strong against a good opponent, and I think it would just give us some momentum heading into a bowl, and we look forward to it just like any other opponent. We can't focus too much on everything that's going around us. We're ready to play another football game."

Atkinson making mark on kick returns

October, 26, 2011
10/26/11
10:56
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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.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's George Atkinson III
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRENotre Dame's George Atkinson III returned this kickoff 96 yards against USC.
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."

Irish offense explodes in historic fashion

October, 8, 2011
10/08/11
8:42
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Andrew Hendrix was running for the end zone, no question about it. He had completed every pass he threw Saturday, had just burst through the line and was seeing nothing but six points in front of him.

But he couldn't help but look back.

"If there was a video board I probably would've seen who was behind me," Hendrix said with a laugh. "But I was checking behind me to see who was behind me, whether I had to make a move on somebody or not, and I ended up losing my balance just at the right time to not get in.

"So it was a little embarrassing, but I'm all right with it."

The humble Hendrix had nothing to be ashamed of, as at that point -- up 33 in the fourth quarter -- the biggest question remaining in Notre Dame's 59-33 rout of Air Force was whether or not the sophomore quarterback would run out of gas during his 78-yard run.

He did, falling forward at the 2, before George Atkinson III punched it in three plays later for the Fighting Irish's final points during a historic day for Notre Dame's offense.

For much of the day, it was tough to figure out who was having the hardest time inside Notre Dame Stadium:

Air Force's defense, which gave up 560 total yards and 59 points, including touchdowns on Notre Dame's first six drives?

[+] EnlargeJonas Gray
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame's Jonas Gray rushed for 69 yards on seven carries with two touchdowns.
The group of high school prospects on hand, who had to wonder if this place was as beautiful every October as the 80-degree temperatures and day-long sunshine would have one believe?

Or Notre Dame's media relations staff, which issued historical reference after historical reference over the press box loudspeaker throughout the offensive showcase?

No Irish team had scored so many points since a 62-0 win over Rutgers in 1996, Lou Holtz's final game at Notre Dame Stadium. The same stadium had never seen as many as 92 total points scored, which the Irish and Falcons combined for Saturday.

And no Notre Dame quarterback had rushed for more than 100 yards since Carlyle Holiday did so in 2001 against Boston College.

Hendrix, seeing his first action this season after not playing his freshman season, entered the game in the first quarter and hit Michael Floyd for what amounted to minus-3 yards.

It was smooth sailing from there.

Hendrix finished the day 4-for-4 passing for 33 yards and, more importantly, rushed it six times for 111 yards.

Most of the heavy lifting came on that 78-yard run mid-way through the fourth quarter, the game no longer in doubt and everyone inside the stadium holding their collective breath before Hendrix finally gave out at the 2.

How sudden did that happen? The public address announcer inside the press box had to reiterate the "no cheering" rule, as reporters couldn't help but be stunned by what they saw.

The reaction on the home sideline was far more exciting.

"I did not see that happening," running back Jonas Gray confessed. "He did kind of break away from the guy, but I think he just kind of ran out of gas."

Gray, a senior, had a message for Hendrix as he came back to the sideline following the Irish's touchdown to end the drive.

"I told him to not get caught ever again," Gray quipped. "I've been through that situation. I told him to never look back, just believe in his speed."

This was supposed to be about how Notre Dame's defense would handle Air Force's vaunted attack, especially with starting end Ethan Johnson sidelined and two freshmen seeing extended playing time in Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

Another freshman end, Chase Hounshell, made his Irish debut as well, but it was a moot point after Jamoris Slaughter forced a fumble on the Falcons' first play.

If Air Force was going to have any chance of hanging with Notre Dame, it could not afford to cough it up and play catch-up, because there was just nothing it could do defensively.

"We got two key turnovers by our defense that we were able to set up, and any time you get a chance to turn over Air Force and put points on the board, it allows you to extend away from them," Brian Kelly said. "And you need some extension from them sometimes in terms of points because they are so difficult to defend, and I think we saw that today."

The fact Air Force actually outgained Notre Dame, 565-560, shows the potential that was there on the other side.

But Kelly and Notre Dame know that means nothing if they cannot protect the ball, something the Irish accomplished by going a second straight week with no turnovers.

They have now put up better than 500 yards of total offense in four of their first six games, winning the last two of them. And they have now won four in a row after two straight defeats.

As Hendrix came out to line up in victory formation with 33 seconds to go Saturday, the student section couldn't help but look ahead.

"Beat-S-C," it chanted, referencing the Irish's battle with the Trojans in the two weeks.

Funny how things play out. Notre Dame kept beating itself to start the season. Now with the momentum going in the Irish's favor, their toughest opponent may be the bye week that comes a week from now.

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