We’ll likely spend the next month or two trying to make heads or tails of the spring game. Part of that is the zero-sum variety of an intersquad scrimmage. Is a big play made by the offense a bad play by the defense? Does a good pass rush mean the offensive line is playing poorly?
With Notre Dame’s depth chart fairly well established, Saturday’s game was an opportunity to watch some of the fringe players make their presence known. One player who helped himself out was cornerback Josh Atkinson. Starting opposite KeiVarae Russell, Atkinson was active all afternoon — playing a nice overall ball game and winning his share of battles in coverage.
With Bennett Jackson out this spring and Lo Wood intentionally slowed down by the coaching staff as he recovers from injury, Atkinson was given a ton of snaps at cornerback on Saturday. He appeared to make good use of them. Even on his penalty for pass interference, Atkinson was in position, though still needing a reminder to turn and look for the football.
For the afternoon, Atkinson filled the stat line with six tackles and a pass breakup, putting a nice performance on tape at the right time. With Jalen Brown competing for time as well, the Irish coaching staff has to feel like its rotation is in place with Russell and Jackson, and Wood’s strong return from an achilles injury giving the Irish three bodies for two spots. If Atkinson and Brown want a chance to get on the field, they’ll need to do it before incoming freshmen Cole Luke, Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw join the competition.
Tracking Josh’s development has been interesting. While gifted with speed almost on par with his brother, Atkinson has taken some time to get comfortable at cornerback. Part of that comes from athleticism that isn’t quite elite, at a position where hiding any deficiency is difficult.
But entering his junior season, Atkinson had a performance on Saturday that should give the defensive staff the confidence that he can play in this secondary if needed. It may have taken a little longer than most expected, but it is coming at the right time.