ATHENS – There’s generally only one way that John Atkins knows he made a big play. That’s when he sees someone else making a big play.
“When you see a big collision, and you see someone like Roquan [Smith] or Natrez [Patrick] making a tackle in the backfield, you know that you did a good job,” Atkins said.
And then maybe one of those teammates will come over, pat Atkins on the head and thank him, and he’ll go right back into the anonymity of the trench. Such is life at nose tackle.
But Atkins is at least appreciated around his team, where he’s emerged as the unsung hero of Georgia’s shut-down defense.
Atkins has 11 tackles this season, which ties for ninth on the team. He has zero sacks, zero tackles-for-loss, no quarterback pressures. And he’s having a great season so far, using his 310 pounds to push the line, force opponents to put two blockers on him, and open up space for teammates to make plays.
“He’s the heart of the trench,” coach Kirby Smart said. “Without him, the guards and centers are getting up on Roquan.”
Atkins does a great job of what Smart called “block recognition” ― seeing where the block is going, who is moving to block him and then reacting to it.
“And he strikes. He holds the point down,” Smart said. “A lot of our defense is predicated off not being able to move him. And the less people move him the more success we have. And he takes a lot of pride in that.
“And there is no glory in what he does. He’s got thumbs and ankles and wrists. He’s battered. But he loves it. And he never complains.”
Indeed, Atkins just smiled when asked about not getting much notice. This happened after practice Tuesday when the media converged around outside linebacker Davin Bellamy, while Atkins was at least for a few minutes left with a couple of reporters.
“That’s all right. I’m used to it,” he said, laughing.
Atkins has started 13 games since the start of last season, and over his three-plus seasons has a total of 54 tackles. He’s still waiting for his first sack.
But one only needs to watch the film closely to see Atkins, listed at 6-foot-4, push back the center or guard, disrupt the play or cause an extra blocker to come over. One also can’t help but notice that it’s not exactly easy to run through the middle of Georgia’s defense.
Everyone knows his role is important, but everyone knows it doesn’t get much glory. Why is Atkins OK with that? Is it because that’s what he signed up for?
“I did. I knew what I was getting into,” Atkins said. “In high school I played a nose guard position that took on a lot of double teams.”
Did he get stats in high school?
“Not a lot,” he said.
And he laughed.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “I’m not selfish.”