Notre Dame freshman George Atkinson III is the nation's eighth-leading kick returner with an average 30.24 yards per return, which surprises his father, former Oakland Raiders great George Atkinson, not at all.
"It's not surprising," the elder Atkinson said. "George and [twin-brother] Josh both dominated in high school. Their speed allows them to do some things most kids couldn't do. The speed they have, they're learning how to really use it. George has always been the kind of of a player where you put a ball in his hands and something is going to happen. I knew whenever they gave him a shot he would be productive."
Atkinson III has provided much-needed electricity to Notre Dame's underperforming special teams units. He returned kick 89 yards for a touchdown in a 31-13 win over Michigan State earlier this season and another 96 yards in a 31-17 loss to USC, thus becoming one of four players to return two kicks for TDs this season.
He had two returns for 58 yards, including a 31-yarder, in Saturday's rout of Navy.
"We found a game changer on our kickoff returns, and that in itself is the reason why this unit has gotten better and better," Kelly said of his special teams. "And we have really paid so much attention to it, and our guys are focused knowing they had to up their game individually and collectively."
The development of younger players expected to take on expanded roles next season has been a ongoing focus, especially on defense, where heralded freshmen Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas have become major contributors. For Atkinson III, whose twin brother Josh plays cornerback for the Irish, the process continued against Navy, when he carried the ball seven times for 28 yards and scored his third touchdown.
With Cierre Wood the only experienced running back returning next season, it's important for Atkinson III to gain experience in the backfield, too.
"I knew it would be harder to step in on offense and make plays there but I knew I had a good shot on special teams this year and that's what I was prepping myself for coming in," he said.
Atkinson III and his father learned the importance of speed from late Raiders boss Al Davis, who was someone Atkinson III saw often while hanging out with his brother at the team's training camp.
"He was a great man, a wise man," Atkinson III said of Davis. "He would tell us stories about how he signed my dad. He was still Al even at his age."