Tag: Josh Atkinson

Jarrett Grace

Tracking fifth-year spots and the bumpy road to 85 scholarships


With Notre Dame on break, the campus is quiet one week before spring practice gets started. But the work inside the Gug is still likely underway, with recruiting efforts for the 2016 cycle pushing forward and discussions about the 2015 roster taking center stage.

While Matt Hegarty’s transfer announcement was the first big move, there are other very difficult conversations likely happening in the near future. With the 24-man recruiting class set to hit campus this June—along with graduate transfer Avery Sebastian—we will get a closer look at how Brian Kelly plans on dealing with the very first roster crunch of his tenure in South Bend.

As we look at the fifth-year senior candidates, it’ll be very interesting how the Irish coaching staff—not to mention the players who will all likely have immediate transfer opportunities after earning their degrees in May—let this play out.

There’s a chance Notre Dame could have players practicing this spring that aren’t a part of the roster come summer and fall. And that’s before taking into consideration the very likely return of KeiVarae Russell and the intention of bringing back Ishaq Williams as well.

Here are the fifth-year candidates currently on the roster:

Josh Atkinson
Jalen Brown
Amir Carlisle
Ben Councell
Matthias Farley
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Conor Hanratty (Kelly already announced)
Matt Hegarty (Hegarty announced intent to transfer)
Chase Hounshell
Nick Martin
Anthony Rabasa
Joe Schmidt
Ishaq Williams


Let’s make some assumptions:

We have seen the last of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown. The veteran cornerback duo didn’t even travel to most away games last season and will be given every opportunity to catch on at a different program, but their time at Notre Dame is finished.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, you can make the same assumption for Chase Hounshell. Multiple shoulder injuries took Hounshell’s career off course, and he’ll likely have to go to a smaller school to find a home.

Anthony Rabasa played a small role on last year’s defense, serving as a pass rusher in a defense in desperate need. If I were managing the roster, I’m not sure there’s room for him as a player, though what he does off the field and in the locker room (things we don’t know) could be the bigger determining factor.

On the flip side of these decisions, starters Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt are locks to return. The same for Matthias Farley and Everett Golson, with Golson holding the eject button if he feels the quarterback job won’t be his. (I don’t see this happening.)

Jarrett Grace needs to be healthy. We’ve heard Kelly nearly will him back to health with his frequent updates, but after a catastrophic injury that stayed far more under the radar than it should have, Grace seems to be back to playing shape this spring.

If he can play, he’ll be back. If not, it’ll make for a very difficult loss to the team, even if his shoes have been filled capably by Joe Schmidt on the field.

Because Amir Carlisle started the season opener in 2013 at tailback and had a successful first season as a slot receiver, he’s a good bet to return in my mind. Again, more opinion more than confirmed truth, but Carlisle is a high-character kid who can play a position of need on the roster, making him valuable.

Ben Councell might be a different story. Recovering from an ACL injury suffered in 2013 wasn’t easy . He’s also a tough fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense. We heard early last season that Councell would be a versatile piece of the Irish defense. That didn’t happen. So if he doesn’t feel like he’ll have a large role in the defense—or doesn’t feel like he can compete because of the injuries that have piled up—Councell might be on the bubble.

As Pete Sampson reported a few weeks ago, Williams needs to reapply to the university. From there, it’ll be very interesting how it all shakes out, as numbers seem to be tight. But Williams is a veteran body up front, something we saw a need for last season.

Fun With Numbers

Let’s look at how the Irish will get to 85 scholarships by the fall:


24 incoming recruits
22 second-year players
22 third-year juniors
11 seniors
graduate transfer (Avery Sebastian)
re-enrollment (KeiVarae Russell)
12 remaining fifth-year candidates
92 scholarship players

We’ve already basically subtracted four or five members from the fifth-year group if we’re to believe our assumptions. So that makes the seven subtractions look much more manageable than two or three scholarships.

And this is when we get used to the law of averages. Last year, Nile Sykes never made it to the season. From the 2013 recruiting class, we never saw Eddie Vanderdoes in South Bend and Rashad Kinlaw was dismissed as well.

Attrition hit the 2012 recruiting class even harder. Gone are Justin Ferguson, Gunner Kiel, Will Mahone, Davonte Neal and Tee Shepard.

So before we sound the alarm, there’s likely a very strong grasp on what is going on inside this program when the staff decided to expand their signing class to 24, and very good reason why Kelly sounded bullish on accepting a few graduate transfers as well.

Notre Dame doesn’t officially recognize redshirts. One of the benefits of forcing students to earn a degree in four years before being accepted into the graduate program is that it allows both the coaching staff and student-athlete to have full flexibility.

So while it certainly makes for some uncertainty as we try our best to track the roster, after five years of program building, we’re finally experiencing the first champagne roster problem of the past decade.

Irish A-to-Z: Josh Atkinson

Atkinson Jackson track

We kick off our 83-part series with an alphabetical run through the Notre Dame football roster. It’s a long offseason. Why not learn something interesting about every player on the Irish roster. 

Josh Atkinson came to Notre Dame with a secondary that was running out of bodies. With starters Robert Blanton entrenched along side Gary Gray, Atkinson joined a position group that had only Lo Wood as a backup, with both E.J. Banks and Spencer Boyd leaving the program early in the Kelly era. (Wood ended up tearing his achilles tendon in preseason camp, making the situation at cornerback even more dire.)

In Atkinson’s four years in the program, much has changed. After committing on the same day as his twin brother George, Atkinson played more as a freshman than he did as a junior, the product of a rebuilt depth chart and enhanced competition.

Now playing for the first time without his brother along side of him, let’s take a quick look at Josh Atkinson heading into his final season at Notre Dame.


5’11.5″, 197 lbs.
Senior, #24



While twin brother George was a Top 100 recruit, Josh had a three-star grade along with impressive (but not elite) offers. Atkinson committed to the Irish after watching them lose to Michigan in 2010, choosing Notre Dame over Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Washington and Washington State.

Still, Atkinson was far from a slouch as a recruit. He was selected for the USA team, where he played with Stephon Tuitt. His speed and size were givens. His athleticism was a bit of a concern, and the knock on Atkinson was that he was a track athlete still trying to figure out football.



Freshman Season (2011): Atkinson played in eight games as a true freshman, sitting out the season’s first four games and missing the bowl game. He notched a tackle against Navy and Wake Forest on defense. Made two other tackles on special teams.

Sophomore Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams. The loss of Lo Wood forced Atkinson into a reserve cornerback role, playing behind starters KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson. Atkinson made five tackles on the season, with three of them coming against Boston College. Off the field, he finished fourth at the Big EAST outdoor track meet with a 10.39 time in the 100m dash. He had top ten finishes at the Big East indoor meet in the 60m and the 200m.

Junior Season (2013): Played in five games, appearing against Temple and then not again until the season’s final four games. Spent time cross-training as a reserve wide receiver before making a tackle on special teams in the Pinstripe Bowl.



Both Atkinson and fellow senior cornerback Jalen Brown have been passed on the depth chart by younger cornerbacks. They’ll also have a hard time getting on the field with fifth-year transfer student Cody Riggs walking in and contributing.

There’s no question that Atkinson’s speed is his best asset. His 10.39 100 meter time puts him in elite territory for football players moonlighting on the track, joining Rocket Ismail and his brother in the sub-10.4 crowd. But that speed hasn’t necessarily translated to success on the football field and athletically Atkinson still struggles as a cornerback operating in open space.

It’s interesting to wonder if Atkinson would’ve been a starting caliber player on one of Charlie Weis’ mediocre defenses, or if he’d have played more if the depth chart wasn’t one of the more top-heavy positions on the roster. But quality veteran depth like Atkinson is a sign of program strength, not necessarily a knock on the player.



Atkinson finishes his eligibility this season after playing as a true freshman and will likely only see the field on special teams. With five cornerbacks in front of him even before Nick Watkins hits campus, finding a niche role will be important if Atkinson wants to contribute.

With Scott Booker’s coverage teams needing an infusion of speed, Atkinson could become a regular contributor there, though four seasons in you’d think that he’d have already solidified that coverage job if it was in his DNA.

On pace to graduate after the season, Atkinson will leave Notre Dame with a degree, something incredibly important to him. He hasn’t become the lockdown cornerback with elite speed many hoped, but he became a solid special teams contributor and served as a key backup early in his career when the cornerback depth chart was dangerously thin.






Offseason cheat sheet: Defensive backs

Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

When Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame program, he was tasked with not just rebuilding the secondary, but reloading it. While he was lucky to inherit a front line of talented players, he was left with a depth chart that was frighteningly thin. No position better illustrated that than safety. When Jamoris Slaughter was injured in Kelly’s opening game, the depth chart didn’t go two deep with scholarship players.

My how things have changed. First Kelly reloaded at safety, filling the depth chart with quality prospects. Last cycle he took dead aim at cornerback, adding three talented youngsters. After making it through last season with three first-year starters, all converted offensive players, the secondary should be an equal to the front seven.


Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott had their hands full last season, forced to get KeiVarae Russell up to speed after spending all summer as a running back-in-training and Bennett Jackson through the season with a bum shoulder. They also had to make the safety position work after losing key reserve Austin Collinsworth before the season started and top shelf starter Jamoris Slaughter in the season’s first month by plugging in Matthias Farley.

The growing pains that we never even saw will pay dividends this season, with Russell, Jackson and Farley all expected to be high level contributors. Fighting for time are returning players expected to play big roles in ’12, like Lo Wood, now back from an achilles injury, and Collinsworth, healthy after back and shoulder ailments.

Youth will immediately challenge to get on the field, namely elite recruits Cole Luke and Max Redfield. Both have already passed veterans on the depth chart, which contributed to the transfer of safety Chris Badger and Josh Atkinson’s move to wide receiver. But even with the attrition, and a season ending injury to Nicky Baratti, depth should be the strength of this group.


Here’s an breakdown of the cornerback and safety personnel:

Bennett Jackson, Sr. #2
KeiVarae Russell, Soph. #6
Lo Wood, Sr. #23
Cole Luke, Fr. #3 (or #36)
Jalen Brown, Jr. #21
Devin Butler, Fr. #12
Josh Atkinson, Jr. #24
Rashad Kinlaw, Fr. #26
Connor Cavalaris, Jr. #47
Joe Romano, Sr. #35
Jesse Bongiovi, Fr. #34

Matthias Farley, Jr. #41
Austin Collinsworth, Sr. #28
Elijah Shumate, Soph. #22
Eilar Hardy, Jr. #4
Max Redfield, Fr. #10
Nicky Baratti, Soph. #29
John Turner, Soph. #31
Eamon McOsker, Soph. #46
Drew Recker, Fr. #39
Ernie Soto, Jr. #43


The two deep in the secondary was probably one of the big surprises of week one. That Cole Luke worked his way into the rotation this early in the season shows you what type of talent the Arizona native brings to South Bend. Kelly plans on using Luke in nickel and dime packages, and likely special teams, as he’ll be wearing No. 36 this Saturday so as not to run into eligibility issues when he and Amir Carlisle are on the field together.

Perhaps also surprising is Eilar Hardy’s ascension into the two-deep at safety. Hardy is listed, not five-star recruit Max Redfield, as a key back-up, perhaps a surprise nearly bigger than Austin Collinsworth beating out Elijah Shumate for the starting safety job opposite Matthias Farley.

Kelly expects Collinsworth and Shumate to both play, calling them 1A and 1B. And while Redfield isn’t in the two deep, that might not be for long, as the Southern California native is too dynamic of a football player to stay off the field for long, but needs to know all the responsibilities heaped on the last line of defense.

With a front seven that’s as dynamic as Notre Dame’s, it’ll be interesting to see what Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks have in store for the secondary. After last year’s mostly vanilla offerings, there’s every reason to believe that the Irish can mix coverages and feel confident putting their cornerbacks on an island, adding more to an already potent pass rush.

Russell and Neal will get looks at cornerback


There’s no question that Notre Dame lacks quality depth at cornerback heading into the season. Needing to replace both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish will look to first year starter Bennett Jackson on the short-side of the field as Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will take their competition for the field cornerback position into training camp.

With converted running back Cam McDaniel added to the mix this spring, and Jalen Brown looking the part but still learning, the Irish essentially have five cornerbacks with zero experience that’ll need to hold passing games in check if Notre Dame has BCS aspirations. That sound you hear? It could be quarterbacks Landry Jones and Matt Barkley, two Heisman Trophy candidates, getting ready for a signature game opportunity.

With Tee Shepard never making it into a Notre Dame uniform, Ronald Darby defecting after a long standing commitment to the Irish and Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer kept out for non-football considerations, Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks will need to hold down the fort until reinforcements come in 2013.

Unless of course those reinforcements are already on campus.

Head coach Brian Kelly revealed that talented two-way freshmen Davonte Neal and Keivarae Russell will both get a look on the defensive side of the ball, potentially adding some dynamic depth (albeit youthful) to the rotation, while the running back and slot positions are filled with proven talent.

“I think we’ve got to have all of the options open when we go into camp,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “With those two kids in particular we’ve had conversations with them to be flexible.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our team. I think everybody knows where we need to continue to build some depth in certain areas. We’re going to keep open-minded and give them an opportunity to compete.”

It’s a common sense move, especially considering the depth chart Neal and Russell find themselves walking into on the offensive side of the ball. Neal was recruited by some colleges as a two-way player and many see the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to be a potential lockdown cornerback.

Russell, who showed tremendous versatility during his high school career, is also said to be coming into South Bend with an open mind.

“He didn’t go in there thinking he wanted to be one spot,” Mariner High head coach Dave Odrizack told Scout.com. “He didn’t go in thinking, ‘I want to be a corner,’ or ‘I want to be a running back.’ He just went in to be a football player.”

At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Russell has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’s also showed good speed, running in the state finals of the 100m dash and having a vertical leap of 37-inches. He saw time all over the field and on both sides of the ball as a running back, receiver, cornerback and safety, making any transition a little bit easier.

Of course, after having no depth at safety the past two seasons, the Irish will now have a whopping 12 scholarship safeties this season. Even with Austin Collinsworth lost for the season, you’ve got to think the coaching staff will be looking for candidates to play on the edge of the defense as well. That might mean talented rising sophomore Eilar Hardy could get a look. It could also mean that Jamoris Slaughter still dabbles at cornerback, entrusting the alignment duties to fellow senior Zeke Motta.

Even with two returning starters, the cornerbacks disappointed in 2011, with Gray regressing in his final season at Notre Dame. There’s no room for regression with this group, as each candidate will go in essentially a blank slate.

We’ll find out in a few months if that’s a good thing.

Speed in context: How fast are the Atkinsons?

Atkinson Jackson track

With their performances in the 100m over the weekend proof that George and Josh Atkinson are fast, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the question, “How fast are they?” The answer, as it turns out, is really, really fast.

From a Notre Dame perspective, the brothers Atkinson are historically fast. Since Irish Track & Field have been running the 100-meter dash, only one person has ever run a faster time than the sprints both brothers recorded: Raghib Ismail.*

That’s 5-foot-10, 175-pound, two-time first-team All-American, Rocket Ismail, who clocked a personal best 10.34 100m dash in a meet his junior year. One of the most explosive kick returners and wide receivers in Notre Dame (you can argue college football) history, clocking a time that’s only a blink of an eye faster than George or Josh. Two freshman that literally didn’t practice before picking up the outdoor season in progress, instead focusing on spring drills with the football team.

The US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association tracks the best times run by college football players in the country, and the Atkinson brothers clock in with the 5th and 6th fastest times in the country.

Top 100m Times for College Football Players

Jeff Demps, Sr. Florida — 10.01
Brent Lee, Jr. Jackson State — 10.25
Marquise Goodwin, Jr. Texas — 10.32
Isaiah Sweeney, Sr. Houston — 10.35
George Atkinson III, Fr. Notre Dame — 10.36
Josh Atkinson, Fr. Notre Dame — 10.39
Jeremy Tillman, Sr. Florida A&M — 10.39

To help put the speed into context, here are the heights, weights, and positions of the sprinters listed above.

Jeff Demps, RB: 5-foot-7, 190 lbs.
Brent Lee, RB: 5-foot-7, 185 lbs.
Isaiah Sweeney, WR: 5-foot-10, 175 lbs.
George Atkinson, RB: 6-foot-1, 215 lbs.
Josh Atkinson, CB: 5-foot-11, 185 lbs.
Jeremy Tillman, WR: 5-foot-11, 185 lbs.

It’s pretty clear that George (and to a certain extent, Josh as well) is an outlier in this group, with his powerful frame and size far from an asset in the sprint world. (He’s carrying at least 25 pounds more than the next guy.) Also working against the twins is the fact that they’re freshmen, still physically developing and learning the intricacies of collegiate sprinting. (There are only two other freshmen in the top 25 sprint times by college football players. Thurgood Dennis, a D-III reserve DB chipped in four tackles on defense while returning 13 kickoffs while focusing on track. Angelo Cabrera is a redshirt freshman that carried the ball only six times for 18 yards at Bethune-Cookman.)

With George and Josh both likely playing impact roles on the gridiron next season, we’ll likely never get a real read on what their track ceilings could be. But it’s rather astonishing to think that after 15 spring practices, and basically zero block work (one of the keys to running fast times in competition), both brothers went out and ran historic times, waking up the echoes of The Rocket, and dusting every other Irish football great in their first year sprinting.

*The top sprinter in Notre Dame history, All-American Bill Hurd, competed in the 100 yard dash. His 9.3 time would translate to a 10.2 100 meter run.