A Whole New Level

Josh Atkinson got a taste of action last season as a true freshman, graduating at mid-season from Scout Team cornerback to special teams regular. His next goal? To reach another level of competency in the Irish secondary.

There's a chance one of Notre Dame's starting cornerbacks next fall will have just graduated. Not from the University, but from his current lot as a Level 1 competitor.

"Consistency, and then he's at Level 1, learning everything," said cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks of his sophomore pupil. "He was a Scout Team guy for us last year.

"Level 1 means he's still learning how to line up, take the proper stance, the proper eye progression, in all of our defenses. And then from there he has to go play with all these wide receivers flying at him. He's a ways away, but he's getting better and he's made improvement."

Atkinson played in the team's final seven games, though the lion's share of his freshman action was in kick coverage. He appeared briefly in early November blowouts from scrimmage, but little from that experience could prepare him for Saturday's in the defensive backfield this fall.

"It was a lot faster," Atkinson admitted of his first scrimmage appearance vs. Navy in Game 8. "In high school I only had coverage: Man. Here I have a whole playbook to learn and now I'm getting that and learning a little more to make plays."

The ability to make plays, or the expectation that he will, has given Atkinson a slight leg up on competitors Lo Wood and Jalen Brown in the battle to join emerging junior Bennett Jackson as a starting and/or regular cornerback next fall.

"What we have back there is a lot of talent," Cooks offered of the unit. "Bennett and Josh, just to single those two out, are athletic, they're fast, they're long, physical, they're tough. They're smart players and they can play at a high level, and it's my job to get them there.

(At Least) One Step Up

A projected starter at present, Jackson has never started a game, though he's played in 26, the first 20 or so primarily on special teams. But after moving from wide receiver last off-season, Jackson began to see an increase in meaningful scrimmage action last November.

"Bennett's at Level 2 pushing at Level 3," said Cooks of the current boundary side cornerback. "He knows what we're asking to get done, and is being competitive at doing those jobs. Now he's trying to take his game to the next level."

(For the sake of reference, Cooks noted 5th-year safety Jamoris Slaughter was at, "Level 400.")

Like Jackson, Atkinson is currently working on the boundary. It's the position the staff considers more physically taxing and challenging of the two cornerback spots.

"Typically more athletic," said Cooks of the personnel at the position. "Teams nowadays put their best guy into the boundary so he has to be the matchup guy; the guy that's going to be able to play man-to-man. He also has to be a little more physical because you get a lot of (running plays) into that short side of the field. So he has to be able to come up and force the edge in Cover 2."

Jackson and Atkinson fit the job description, albeit for different reasons.

"He's physical and he's fast, which is what you want," said Cooks of Jackson, "Because if (the offense) goes 3 by 1 and put their best receiver into the boundary, you want a guy that's going to be physical and fast. And (Jackson's) long, so he's able to go up and challenge a 6'3" wide receiver, where if maybe you have a shorter guy in the boundary you have to worry about that matchup so you have to do some other things (coverages).

"Josh is to the boundary because he's a really aggressive player. Physical vs. the run; has a good use of his hands and getting to wide receivers and disrupting them."

Pass…and Fail

Son of former Pro Bowl safety George Atkinson, Josh possesses a quality unique to sons of former players and coaches…he can take constructive criticism. In fact, he asks for it.

"You definitely can tell he's been coached hard and that his dad has instilled hard work, effort, energy, 100 percent (at all times) and is a ‘Yes sir; No sir' type of kid," said Cooks of the Stockton, CA native. "You can see that in both of his sons (Josh's twin brother George ranked as one of the nation's top kick returners last fall). So you can see some of those characteristics of having an NFL dad, and having that background."

One such characteristic familiar to all NFL players who made the level jump from college to the pros is an official grade.

Atkinson asks Cooks for a weekly score, then reports back to his father.

"I talk to him at least once a week and I give him a percentage grade on how I did that week," Josh said of the former renowned Oakland Raiders hitter. "We always talk about things to work on, basically fundamentals. We've always done that. In high school he was my coach. The focus is to get better and not stay at one level. It's always about being a better player."

Asked for his most recent grade, Atkinson noted, "I think it was an 81."

And prior to that?

"They're very different, because he's up and down," said Cooks of Atkinson's performance. "One week he may have performed at a B and the next he might have performed at an F. And I give him the truth.

"Its all in fun, but it really shows me it's important to him that he wants to get better, because it's a serious conversation: ‘Hey coach, what do I need to work on? What did you see this week? What can I get better at? Just give me one thing I can focus on next week or at this practice.'"

Pressed for the score that preceded his solid 81, Cooks noted: "His next one was a 67. That's failing for us. That's a touchdown, and that's exactly what happened. That's why he dropped (from a relative B to an F). Deep balls over the head can't happen."

"I have not (lied). I'm going to be honest with him," Cooks continued of the practice. "He's an awesome young man and I love coaching him."

(Told of his brother's weekly ritual with their father, George noted, "That's a little more Josh. I don't know about that! Thanks for telling me. We're going to be comparing grades now.")

Josh offered he and his brother continue to help each other on what will be a four-year journey from novice to grizzled veteran.

"We always praise each other when we make plays and get on each other when we don't," Josh noted. "We give each other advice and push each other all the time. Bad practice we're on each other to get better every day."

And now maybe they'll have one more reason to compare and contrast each other's performance…and to call home as well.

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