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September 3, 2010

Atkins hopes to grow into big role for Irish

Gaining the dreaded "freshman 15" wouldn't bother Notre Dame's Eric Atkins at all. In fact, he'd welcome it.

Atkins would love to begin his college career 15 pounds heavier than his playing weight as a senior at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore. If only Atkins, a 6-foot-1 guard, could gain weight as easily as the typical college freshman.

He's eating as much as possible and consuming a couple of protein shakes each day in an attempt to get his lean frame ready for the physical grind of Big East basketball. Consider it his version of the Atkins diet.

All that effort helped Atkins increase his weight from 165 to 175, but he wants to get to 180 by the start of the season.

"It's pretty tough for me to gain weight," Atkins acknowledged. "I think it's just because of my metabolism. I'm trying the best I can."

Atkins will have to grow in a hurry. The No. 66 prospect in the incoming freshman class, Atkins likely will step right into a major role as the Irish attempt to replace departed point guard Tory Jackson. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has called Jackson the best leader he had been around in 25 years of coaching.

The Irish return senior Ben Hansbrough and sophomore Joey Brooks, natural shooting guards who also can play the point. But Atkins is the only pure point guard on Notre Dame's roster.

Brey has a history of starting true freshman point guards. Jackson and former Irish star Chris Thomas each played right away and ended their careers as four-year starters. Atkins could join that fraternity.

"We really have to look at Eric early," Brey said at the end of the 2009-10 season. "That's one of the reasons he decided [to come to Notre Dame]. He knew the timing was right. Certainly Ben can handle the ball for us. Joey Brooks is a good young guard who's gotten better in practice all the time. And then we've got two other guards coming in -- [Jerian] Grant and [Alex] Dragicevich -- who also have ballhandling skills. But Eric Atkins is a true point guard, so I feel we have to get him stronger and ready.

"The nice thing about him, like with Tory as a freshman and like with Chris Thomas as a freshman, he would play with older guys. He's not playing with other freshmen. The nucleus of guys playing the minutes, for the most part, are veterans. I think that helps when you start a young guard."

Atkins selected Notre Dame in part because he knew Jackson's graduation would give him a shot at immediate playing time. Atkins already has set his sights high for the upcoming season.

"My first goal is for the team," Atkins said. "I want to make sure we get back to the tournament. I want to have a winning record in the Big East and finish in the top five or top three of the Big East. That's my goal for the team.

"For myself, I want to make the Big East all-freshman team, and I want to average the most assists in the conference."

To reach those goals, Atkins must get stronger physically. He already is more than strong enough mentally. Atkins gained that maturity the hard way.

Atkins had just finished his freshman year of high school when his father, William Atkins, died of cancer. William Atkins had played college basketball at American International College, a Division II program in Massachusetts. Before he passed away, William Atkins gave his son the types of lessons that helped him develop into a top-100 prospect.

Starting young at the point
If Eric Atkins wins a job as Notre Dame's starting point guard, it would continue something of a tradition for Irish coach Mike Brey. Chris Thomas and Tory Jackson had plenty of success as four-year starting point guards during Brey's tenure. Here's a look at their statistics.
Taking care of the ball
Atkins has quite an act to follow as he bids to replace Jackson, who helped the Irish rank among the nation's top four teams in assist-turnover ratio each of the past three seasons.
SeasonA-TO ratioRank
As a seventh- and eighth-grader, Atkins was home-schooled. When he wasn't doing his classwork, Atkins typically was on a basketball court working on his game with his dad.

Often during those years, William Atkins would get on the phone with Todd Bozeman, who was coaching Eric Atkins with the AAU's D.C. Assault at the time. Atkins often would begin the call by saying he wanted to ask just one question, but inevitably he would remain on the phone for an hour, picking Bozeman's brain for ways his son could improve.

The move clearly paid off. The changes in Atkins' game were evident after those two years.

"He was a good player before that, but I thought his game grew by leaps and bounds," said Bozeman, now the coach at Morgan State. "He began to be more physical, even though he's a thin player. His defense picked up. He just gained confidence that guys get from spending more time in the gym."

After those two years of home schooling, Atkins had more skill. And after his dad died, he had a lot more incentive. Watching his father fight for his life those last few months inspired Atkins to work as hard as he could at everything he did.

"I grew up a lot quicker after my father passed away," Atkins said. "I had to be more of a man of the house. And on the court, I just became a lot more aggressive."

His mother noticed the difference.

"He was definitely much more focused," Dominique Atkins said. "Basketball was the one thing that he shared so much with his dad. He wanted to realize some of the dreams that his dad had for him. That was something that became really apparent. Now when he was playing, he was not just playing for himself but playing for his dad."

Bozeman spoke at William Atkins' funeral, where he served as a pallbearer. He also could see how Atkins was playing with a renewed sense of purpose after his father's death.

"Just speaking for myself, I remembered everything my dad told me after he passed," Bozeman said. "When he was here, I might not have remembered it as much, but now I remember everything.

"I'm sure Eric remembers everything his dad told him. I think that probably increased his focus and made him more determined because then you're kind of doing it for your dad. I always had that feeling when I watched him."

Basketball became a refuge for Atkins as he developed close friendships with Duke guard Nolan Smith and 2011 four-star prospect Quinn Cook. All three played with the D.C. Assault. All three also have lost their fathers.

That common ground has helped Atkins, Smith and Cook lean on and encourage one another.

"I wouldn't wish that on anybody, but with them having gone through it, we all just helped each other out," Atkins said. "Any other kid around who goes through that, we're always there to help them."

His performance has set quite an example. Atkins led Mount St. Joseph to 106 wins as a four-year starter. He was named the Baltimore Catholic League's player of the year in each of the past two seasons. He also made a move up the 2010 recruiting rankings with his solid performance on the AAU circuit the summer before his senior year.

His game has developed enough to help him make an immediate impact in the Big East. Now he's hoping his body develops at a similar rate.

"Eric has a complete game,'' said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He's good defensively. He has a nice feel offensively as far as balancing, distributing the ball and scoring. He can score when needed to, but he really knows how to set other guys up. He has long arms and uses his length defensively well.

"The big thing for him is to get physically stronger. He's skinny. That's the big question mark on him. I think when all is said and done, he's going to be a very good college player at Notre Dame, but exactly what he'll do as a freshman probably will have a lot to do with if he's strong enough physically."

That's why Atkins keeps working to add weight. He wants to reach all the goals that he has set for his team and for himself. He got one more reminder last spring of what was at stake when he watched Smith help Duke win a national championship.

"I saw how happy he was, how good it felt for him to win a championship," Atkins said. "I want to have that feeling.''

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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