Thursday, April 5, 2012
Bloodlines, competition fuel Atkinson twins
By Matt Fortuna
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As brothers growing up in California, the Atkinson twins competed in everything. Races, video games, school grades -- all was fair game for Josh Atkinson and George Atkinson III, who, much to their dismay, found themselves locked in stalemates more often than not.
"They would try to get me in that conversation that you've got me in now," their father, George Jr., said with a laugh. "But I've become quite elusive, as you see."
George Atkinson returned two kicks for touchdowns in his first season at Notre Dame.
An all-pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders three decades ago, George Jr. remains a busy man, broadcasting Raiders games on the radio and re-joining the AFL's San Jose Sabercats this season to coach the secondary. (He was on their staff from 2000-08.)
He talks with rising sophomores Josh and George III, the youngest of his nine kids, roughly three times a week. And though the father is careful to encourage and not place expectations on his sons' Notre Dame careers after coaching them in high school, the twins have a thorough vetting process that keeps them on their heels and their old man updated on their progress.
Josh goes to cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks for a weekly letter-grade evaluation to pass along to his dad. George III, a running back, never needs to ask his position coach for one.
"He knows how he's doing because I let him know -- he doesn't have to come and ask," running backs/slot receivers coach Tony Alford quipped. "I'm pretty boisterous as far as what my expectations are."
For George III, the challenge this season is building off a freshman campaign that featured two kickoff returns for touchdowns, the first Irish newcomer to pull off that feat since Raghib Ismail. For Josh, it is becoming a regular in the secondary after seeing spot duty on an experienced unit last season.
"We always praise each other when we make plays and we get on each other when we don't make plays," Josh said of his brother. "And we give each other opinions on, 'Hey, if you do this, you'll get better at that.' Also we push each other all the time. If one of us has a bad practice or one of us is not catching the ball or things of that aspect, we're always on each other and making sure we get better each and every day."
Cooks called Josh a "level-1" corner, meaning he is making his way from the scout team to the two-deep while adapting to complex coverage schemes. Josh played just one coverage in high school, but, by Cooks' measure, has taken a proactive approach to learning the Irish's playbook.
Josh Atkinson is looking to make more of an impact in the secondary this season.
"You definitely can tell that he's been coached hard, definitely can tell that his dad has instilled hard work, effort, energy, 100 percent, yes-or-no-sir-type of kid -- you can see that in both his sons," Cooks said. "So you can see some of those characteristics of having an NFL dad and then having that background, and now it's translating into his play on the field."
George III is focusing on dropping his pads to run the ball lower, and he is hoping he will have the opportunity to help an Irish punt-return unit that averaged an abysmal 0.3 yards per return last season before their bowl game.
"I ran the fastest 40," he claimed of team testing, saying he clocked in at 4.43. "But 40s don't really mean much if you can't put it on the field, so that's what I'm working on first, using my speed on the field."
The identical twins ran on Notre Dame's track and field team this spring.
In May 2010, one month after winning the 100-meter event at the Arcadia Invitational in 10.61 seconds, George III suffered a season-ending hamstring injury trying to win the 100-meter event at the East Bay Athletic League championships. His second-place time of 10.70 seconds may have been more admirable had the first place winner not been Josh, who finished the event in 10.66 seconds.
Josh won the 100-meter event the next year at the Stanford Invitational, completing it in 10.85 seconds.
"It became controversial, I guess you could say," their father, George Jr., said. "George never won at Stanford and Josh did, and Josh never won at Arcadia and George did."
Whatever tension existed then soon evaporated, as it always has, before another fraternal clash eventually resumed.
"They compete. Those guys compete," Alford said. "And they come from a house where that was push, competition. That brotherly love, they got that, but boy they will compete with one another now. In track, in football. When we were recruiting they were talking about who could play 1-on-1 basketball, get out in the street and go run. They were talking about it [at practice] -- who was gonna win on the kickoff cover drill, who was gonna be the first to get down the field. So they compete, and that's a good thing."