"He did a 360 or a 720, whatever, since he got here," Velasco said.
The Atkins who arrived from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was not that impressive. His resume was – he was Scout.com's No. 41 defensive end in the nation and his state's Class AAAAA defensive player of the year – but the flesh and blood left a lot to be desired, Velasco said.
"He was just so lazy," Velasco said. "He had no work ethic. I was like, ‘Man this guy has got ability, but with that attitude he will never play a down at Georgia.'"
The transition from high school star to college freshman was tough, from learning the defensive scheme to meeting the off-field demands, Atkins said. He overslept and missed more than one lifting session.
"He was still living in those high school days," defensive end Jeremy Lomax said, "but he's coming around man."
In his sophomore season, Atkins is tied for the No. 8 Bulldogs' team lead in tackles-for-loss with nine and is second in quarterback pressures (23), and he has been Georgia's most consistent defensive tackle, head coach Mark Richt said. Atkins has made the team's Victors Club in every game except the Tennessee game.
"There are times I'll just watch Geno because I think he's about to do something big," Richt said.
The turnaround started in last year's bowl practices when Atkins decided to pick a figurative fight with senior center Nick Jones.
"I was just messing with Nick Jones, saying, ‘I'm going to try to beat you,'" Atkins said. "I just got that in my head and so I just tried to get better and better so I could get one up on Nick Jones before he left."
During the team's bowl site practices in Atlanta, Atkins finally won one of the matchups, with a swim move, he said.
"He laughed it off, but I told him I got that one win, and he couldn't do anything about it because he was leaving," Atkins said. "I beat a senior, and Nick Jones was such a great leader and a tremendous player, it boosted up my confidence tremendously."
That confidence carried over into spring practice and the fall, Atkins said, and that's when Richt noticed the change.
"He's just so strong, and he's more athletic than people want to give him credit for, then you add energy to that," Richt said. Atkins has gone from the player Velasco called "lazy" to someone praised almost universally by his teammates for his high energy level. He had three tackles and one sack, and the sack came after he had been blocked to the ground.
"I wouldn't put him in (the David Pollack) category yet, but he's on his way," Richt said. "He plays very, very hard."
Even Velasco is a believer now.
"He's a beast," Velasco said. "He's strong, he's quick off the ball. I think he's one of the better d-tackles not only on this team but in this league."