Georgia’s John Atkins, a greeter on the field and off

John Atkins, known as John-John to friends and teammates, poses with his son John Jr. after graduating from UGA with a degree in sociology last December.

ATHENS – Patrons of Heyward Allen Toyota were sometimes taken aback this summer when they entered the dealership’s service department. There they were met by a massive human being. But while John Atkins, at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, may have resembled a bouncer posted there to keep them out, he was actually there as a greeter to welcome them in.

“Someone from service will be with you shortly,” the big man would say politely.

It’s a summer job Atkins has enjoyed for four years now.

“Most people don’t really know I play football,” said Atkins, a fifth-year senior from Thomson who is six years removed from high school. “Sometimes people will say, ‘you have to play something around here.’ Then I’m like, ‘yeah, I play football.’”

Yes, he does. To a pretty high level, in fact.

Of all the returning starters that get talked about and cited as reasons why there should be optimism for Georgia’s 2017 defense – and there are a lot of them, 10 in all – Atkins might be referenced the least. But that’s a mistake.

As a noseguard, Atkins plays a position that doesn’t rack up a lot of stats. Atkins started nine games there last year, has started 12 in his career and played in 33 in all. For that he has only 43 tackles to show and he has never recorded a sack.

But those who understand the form and function of a noseguard in a 3-4 defensive scheme appreciate the job Atkins has been doing in there. They’d be better advised to look at the statistics of Georgia’s inside linebackers to gauge the kind of work Atkins had been doing.

Roquan Smith (95), Natrez Patrick (59) and Reggie Carter combined for 199 tackles last season.

“The defensive linemen are the ones at the point of attack holding the line basically so we can roam free, so we can get to the gaps and get to the holes we need to,” Patrick said after a practice this week. “In that respect, John does a great job. I play behind him a lot and I’m free a lot.”

If it seems like ancient history since Atkins came to Georgia as a 4-star prospect out of Thomson High School it’s because it kind of is. He signed with the Bulldogs twice, attending prep school at Hargrave Military in Virginia in 2012 before finally arriving in Athens. Then he redshirted.

It wasn’t until 2014 that he finally got on the field, and then he was still apprenticing. He was biding his time behind the likes of Sterling Bailey, Ray Drew, Chris Mayes, Garrison Smith and others. It was James DeLoach whom Atkins succeeded at Hayward Allen Toyota.

But Atkins patience and persistence has paid off. This past fall he graduated with a degree in sociology. He also became a father almost exactly a year ago. John Jr., or just “Junior,” as his parents call him, will turn 1 in two weeks.

Atkins thought briefly about the NFL and giving it a shot despite a relatively low draft grade. But instead he has pressed on at UGA, continuing to take classes and working hard to change the opinion of pro scouts.

Already having that degree in hand has helped in that regard, too.

“It’s easier to focus more on football,” he said. “I’m taking online classes and have tutoring in the morning. But that’s it.”

And, of course, he has been able to work a little bit on the side. He said he worked about 24 hours a week this summer.

But Atkins is not looking at that as a fall-back career. As much as he has appreciated the part-time work, his father was a mechanic and, respectfully, he’s not interested in working in the automotive industry full time.

Instead, he’s interested in forensic science and longs to work in the investigative business, with the FBI or in some other agency. He tries to find classes that can help him to that end and he loves to watch all the crime dramas on television. Law & Order SVU occupies the spot as his favorite.

Having fought through adversity and stayed pat at UGA should allow him that option. But all that comes after football, which remains Atkins’ main focus and the career in which he most passionately wants to become professional.

That will, of course, require a successful fall at Georgia, both individually and as a team.

“That’s everybody’s dream,” Atkins said of becoming a pro. “If we work hard every day, hopefully we’ll be there.”

Atkins’ presence in the middle of the Bulldogs’ defensive line should help them achieve that. His teammates certainly believe so.

“That’s our old guy on the D-line,” Patrick said. “That’s the guy who’s been here, the guy that knows the defense inside and out. That’s a guy the D-line can kind of lean on.”

Atkins remains a greeter, but this fall he’ll be introducing himself to opposing linemen and ball carriers.

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