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Atkinson takes a risk, departs Notre Dame for NFL Draft

Michigan State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 21: George Atkinson III #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks a tackle by Max Bullough #40 of the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 21, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 17-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Junior running back George Atkinson III is leaving the Notre Dame football program, declaring for the NFL Draft after three seasons in South Bend. That the speedster is willing to test the murky waters that lie ahead of him could be a telling sign as to where he thought he stood in the program’s future.

One of the fastest players in college football, Atkinson possesses elite speed, especially for a back that weighs 220 pounds. After receiving a late round grade from the NFL’s talent evaluators, Atkinson is gambling that someone will take a shot on his rare athletic blend for a player that’ll likely contribute as a kick return man to start.

After opening the season as the team’s starting running back, Atkinson saw less and less time as the season wore on, giving away carries to Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston. While a breakout game against Oklahoma, where Atkinson ran for 148 yards on just 10 carries, gave you a flash of what he could do, Atkinson followed that up by laying an egg against a soft Arizona State rush defense, playing one of his least effective games when given 18 carries.

Atkinson sat out the Pinstripe Bowl after violating team rules, a suspension Atkinson took to Twitter to defend, though he quickly deleted the message. The suspension came shortly after Atkinson’s father, former Raider George Atkinson Jr., criticized the direction of the Irish football program on a radio program in the Bay Area.

Dan Murphy of caught up with Atkinson Jr. to ask about his son’s decision to leave school early. As you’d expect, he said the decision had nothing to do with the recent radar blips, but rather the opportunity to play professionally.

“I guess it’s like anything else when you feel you’re ready for something and the time is proper for you,” Atkinson’s father said. “If you have an opportunity why not try to seize it?”

While Irish fans often focused on Atkinson’s limitations, he’s shown the ability to be an elite return man while also averaging 6.4 yards per carry over the past two seasons, a testament to his home run ability. He may struggle to catch the ball in space and run more upright than you’d want, but as his placement among the freaks of college football attest, his raw talent will likely be enough to get an NFL team to take a flier on him.

Atkinson will begin training for the draft, with an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine still not official. With a 10.36 100m time and a sprinter background, getting an opportunity to show off in Indianapolis would be a great break for him.

With Atkinson gone, the running back depth chart seems to gain clarity. With Tarean Folston, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel now joined by Greg Bryant, and Will Mahone battling for reps as well, the four man depth chart is more manageable, though puts a focus on recruiting the position as well.

The Irish have lost Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and now Atkinson to the draft. Troy Niklas still has a decision to make as well.