ATHENS — Saturday’s game will fulfill a promise Geno Atkins made to his mother. She’ll get to walk with her son onto the field at Sanford Stadium on Senior Day, getting applause from the fans and knowing her son finished what he started at Georgia.
Atkins’ decision to return to Georgia this season may have cost him a shot at being a first-round NFL draft pick a year ago, but he said he doesn’t have any regrets.
“I’m still trying to just graduate, and I let everything else fall into place,” he said.
For the first six games of the season, little seemed to be falling into place for the senior defensive tackle.
Atkins’ decision to stay in school rather than head to the pros looked like a bad one, with Georgia’s defensive line struggling and Atkins’ numbers falling well below expectations.
Through six games, Atkins had just nine tackles and no sacks. He was getting in the backfield, but he was rarely making the play.
But the past four weeks, Atkins has turned into the dominant force many fans expected in his senior season. He has nearly doubled his tackle total — 16 in the past four games — picked up six tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and his first two sacks of the season, including a key takedown of Auburn’s Chris Todd last week to force the Tigers’ first three-and-out of the game and swing momentum in Georgia’s favor for the first time.
“I feel like I’m playing a little bit better,” Atkins said. “Each week I try to improve on certain aspects, and right now, I think I’m starting to blossom a little bit, and my game is getting a little bit better.”
So what changed?
Head coach Mark Richt doesn’t think Atkins is necessarily playing any better of late, but thanks to a bit of luck, the numbers are finally beginning to accumulate.
“When you’re an interior defensive lineman, it’s hard to predict what kind of stats you are going to get,” Richt said. “Interior defensive linemen can be playing lights out and not necessarily get those kinds of numbers.”
Richt has a point. Atkins was widely considered one of the most aggressive linemen in the SEC a year ago but finished without a sack and had just 7.5 tackles for loss.
During his sophomore season, however, Atkins’ numbers were dominant, picking up 7.5 sacks, but he said much of the grunt work in getting to the quarterback was done by fellow defensive tackle Jeff Owens, who finished the year without a sack.
Still, Atkins believes there’s more to his turnaround than just the luck of the draw. More important, he thinks, is the increased pressure coming from the edge.
Early in the season, Georgia’s defensive ends struggled, but during Atkins’ recent hot streak, the unit has accounted for 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
“I believe it’s a big part,” Atkins said. “It’s freeing us all up because you can’t just focus on the inside, now you’ve got to focus on the whole line. It’s giving us all an opportunity to make plays.”
But the biggest key for Atkins’ recent success might be that trip onto the field he has about to make with his mother on his arm.
A year ago, Atkins’ career at Georgia could have ended with an NFL contract, but his mother wouldn’t allow it. In a few more weeks, however, Atkins will be moving on whether his mother is ready or not.
“I think it’s a combination of things, but I guess he’s realizing it’s coming to an end,” Owens said. “College football is almost over.”
Defensive ends coach Rodney Garner makes a point of routinely reminding Atkins he still has a way to go to reach his potential. Given Atkins’ immense talent, that’s likely a goal that will always dangle just out of reach.
Nevertheless, it remains Atkins’ goal, and while he and Owens have delivered on much of the enormous expectations thrust upon them of late, he knows there’s still more to come.
“I don’t think we’ve lived up to our full potential, and we haven’t been as dominant as we probably wanted,” Atkins said. “We’ve still got potential to excel.”
EXTRA POINTS: Georgia tailback Washaun Ealey earned the SEC’s freshman of the week award following his performance against Auburn in which he picked up 98 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. ... The kickoff time for Georgia’s regular-season finale against Georgia Tech has been set for 8 p.m. with the game airing on ABC.