Atkinson 3

Atkinson brothers blaze in Big East 100m finals


For much of the past decade, the Notre Dame football program has been stuck having to answer questions about being too slow. Over the weekend, George and Josh Atkinson offered two data-points to help make that statement obsolete.

The twin brothers, George a 6-foot-1, 215 pound running back, and Josh, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback, put up dazzling numbers at the Big East track meet, just weeks after finishing up spring football practice. Josh placed fourth in the finals with a 10.39 sprint while George finished fifth with a 10.46 run. George also clocked a 10.36 time in his preliminary heat. Each ran races that clocked as the fastest times of any freshman football player in the country, and what measured out to be the fourth and fifth fastest times by any college football player running track.

George Atkinson’s speed was on display during the Blue-Gold Game, when the freshman running back dazzled in the open field as he led the offense in rushing yards. Josh, who surprised many by edging his brother in the finals, shows one of the obvious reasons he’s a leading contender for the field cornerback job, with his elite speed going along with his better than average size at cornerback. (For good measure, Josh also qualified for the 200m final, finishing fifth behind Irish freshman Christopher Giesti, who won with a 21.15 sprint.) Josh will still battle Lo Wood for the starting job, but if he beats Wood out, that’ll give the Irish two gifted sprinters playing cornerback if he’s matched with Bennett Jackson. There’s not a lot of depth yet, but both guys can fly.

While Josh will be tasked with covering receivers, George offers one of the most intriguing offensive talents the Irish have had in quite some time. As the most physical of the Irish running backs, he’s a better fit to bang the ball inside than Cierre Wood or Theo Riddick. Yet he’s also one of the most explosive runners in all of college football, with a sprint time that matches him up with any of the fastest speed merchants in America. That kind of skill-set should give new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin plenty of creativity, and forces you to believe the Irish staff will spend the summer finding ways to get the ball in Atkinson’s hands.

With Chris Brown ready to enroll this summer, the Irish are collecting the kind of speed needed to compete at the top of the college football food chain. Brown, who clocked a 10.51 100m during regional qualifying at Hanahan High School, also had a seven-foot high jump last week, a number that would’ve won the Big East Championship this weekend. (He’s also had a 51-foot, 2-inch triple jump in the past, a leap that would’ve also netted him a Big East title.)

Even if Brown is ready to step on the field and contribute immediately, three speedsters don’t make up for an offensive unit that’s in desperate need of home run threats. But after running two of the fastest times to come out of the South Bend in quite some time, it’s clear that there’s an upturn in the making.





Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”