SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- George Atkinson III isn't getting challenged to many races anymore.
Everett Golson -- who thinks he's the fastest player on the team, according to running back Cierre Wood -- didn't finish a footrace with Atkinson. And Wood, who has as much bravado as anyone, admitted Atkinson would burn him after about 20 yards.
"After the Miami game they figured that I have the crown," Atkinson laughed.
Speed has always been Atkinson's strong suit. He runs indoor and outdoor track for Notre Dame, and his 100-meter time of 10.36 seconds was the second-fastest every by an Irish track runner. The only guy ahead of him: Rocket Ismail.
Atkinson has racked up 290 yards on 32 carries, good for an average of 9.1 yards per attempt -- the fifth-highest rate among FBS rushers.
But Atkinson's working to be more than just a speed guy. He's focused on improving into a complete back, one who can be counted on to hang on to the football and be a reliable passing target. It was Atkinson's shortcomings in both those areas that led to coach Brian Kelly lumping him in with Everett Golson as "heart attack" guys during spring ball.
"He was not fun to watch in preseason camp when you threw the ball to him," Kelly recalled.
"I realize that I want to expand my role," Atkinson said. "I just dont want to be carrying the ball, I want to be out there running routes and stuff. Yesterday, I wanted to go one-on-ones, so I got a couple routes in. So I just want to be more dimensional, less one-dimensional and have more dimensions about my game."
But with a crowded backfield featuring upperclassmen in Wood and Theo Riddick, Atkinson has often been the odd man out. That, however, may begin to change.
"We still have to continue to get more touches for George Atkinson," Kelly said Tuesday. "It's less about Cierre and Theo, because they know their role, they have accepted their role. George has, as well. We just think that from a coaching standpoint, if there is anything amongst the three backs, we have to get George some more touches."
More plays for Atkinson likely means fewer for Riddick and Wood. While Wood has begun to accept his diminished role compared to last year, he's still someone who maintains he's at his best when he's carrying the ball three, four, five times in a row.
"I dont have the luxury of going in there for a long series or a long drive," Wood said. "So I gotta make do with what I have and make it the best that I can make it.
Wood, who was suspended for the first two games of the season, has rushed 47 times for 279 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Compare that to Riddick, who's only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and the difference is stark. While Riddick said stats aren't his thing and Kelly downplayed the importance of YPC, the same isn't necessarily true for Wood.
"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood said. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest. And it shows as far as yards per carry goes."
Juggling a crowded backfield may seem like a headache, but taking a step back, it may be more of a good problem to have than anything else.
"Its hard for any defense because they dont know what theyre going to get, we all run in different styles and whatnot," Wood said. "George is just pure speed, Theo, hes really, really elusive and is hard to tackle and stuff like that, and me, a combination of all two, really. Its just really hard for a defense to key one thing."