ATHENS — You know him as No. 97 in a Georgia football uniform and he’s listed as John Atkins on your roster. But to his UGA coaches and teammates and to folks in around his hometown of Thomson, he is affectionately known as “John John.”
Atkins couldn’t say explain exactly where the “John John” thing comes from. He has just always answered to it. But he doesn’t shy away from it.
Asked whether it was time to make a transition in his UGA career to be known by duplicate designation, Atkins just laughed.
“I don’t know about that,” he said modestly. “I mean, I feel like I’ve just got to come to practice and work every day and just keep working every day so I can one day break out. I just want to do the things I love and keep doing what the coaches are telling me to do.”
Such is the attitude and approach of Atkins. That’s about all you’ll get out of him as far as self-assessment. He is reserved and unassuming. But by all accounts, he’s also pretty good.
Atkins falls into that growing category of college players who often gets lost in this age of high-profile recruiting. That is, he wasn’t one of those instant hits out of high school. He wasn’t a nobody, drawing a 4-star rating from ESPN. But he was redshirted and to date has played primarily in backup roles.
But he has also remained on a consistently upward track. Atkins has just quietly gone about his business, done what his coaches and trainers have told him and now finds himself in a position of need and expectation.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound junior is one of only two inside-technique tackles with any experience to speak of for the Bulldogs. He has played in 20 of their 33 games over the last two seasons with three starts. He has 21 career tackles, four quarterback pressures, two bat-downs and a tackle for loss.
Atkins spent a lot of time this past season playing nose guard alongside ballyhooed freshman Trent Thompson. Sophomore DaQuan Hawkins also played regularly in the middle, appearing in 10 games.
It’s upon those three individuals that Georgia is rebuilding its interior line. The Bulldogs also brought in Julian Rochester from McEachern as an early enrollee and signed two more interior linemen in Michail Carter and Tyler Clark, who will join the group in June.
“John John Atkins plays hard and physical in there,” coach Kirby Smart said last Friday. “Those guys have been pleasant surprises inside and have really worked hard.”
Atkins was particularly pleased with the way things shook out after last season. After coach Mark Richt was dismissed in late November, neither he nor any of the defensive linemen could be sure for whom they’d be toiling this season.
That Smart came in, retained Tracy Rocker as defensive line coach and brought in Mel Tucker to coordinate the defense has Atkins feeling good about the future.
“Coach Rock is a like a father figure,” Atkins said. “He’s the greatest guy to be around. Once you’ve been around him, I don’t know, it’s just exciting, because when he comes out there, he brings out the best in you. Coach Rocker coming back, I can’t really say how good it was but it was amazing. I mean, it goes for the other coaches, too, but I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else.”
Also helping the transition is the fact that Georgia’s defense changed little if at all, especially for the Bulldogs’ down-linemen.
“It hasn’t been a lot different,” Atkins said. “They’ve been harping on the same things. Everybody’s coming together. Everybody’s buying into to what Coach Rock and Coach Tucker got to say. I think it’s going to be a good season.”