SOUTH BEND – Eric Atkins was as quiet as a church mouse his freshman season at Notre Dame.
The point guard remained quiet as a sophomore, and even last year – his third season as a starter – he deferred more to former first-team All-Big East selection Jack Cooley to lead the Irish.
But as Atkins enters his senior season and third as a team captain, there is no doubt who the Irish will turn to lead them as the program enters its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference after 18 years in the Big East.
He truly feels its his team and hes the voice, coach Mike Brey said. Ive been really impressed how he runs things. Hes got a good supporting cast, but it is truly his team.
Atkins has been overshadowed by his supporting cast since averaging 25.4 minutes as a freshman on a team that was completely controlled by former guard Ben Hansbrough as the Irish went 27-7 in 2010-11.
The 6-foot-2, 182-pounder from Columbia, Md., has even been overlooked at times this year as classmate Jerian Grant received first-team All-ACC preseason honors and much of the conversation about the team has centered around how McDonalds All-American guard Demetrius Jackson will help the team as a freshman and if forwards Garrick Sherman, Tom Knight and Zach Auguste can make up for production lost when Cooley graduated.
Atkins has never earned a postseason honor outside of program awards, but his teammates know how valuable he is to the Irish.
Hes everything you want in a point guard, Sherman said. He understands the game beyond anybody else. I love playing with him.
The playing has always been natural for Atkins. He averaged 5.8 points and 3.2 assists as a freshman, 12.1 points and 4.1 assists as a sophomore and 11.2 points and 5.5 assists last year.
Becoming a leader was a slower process, and one that Atkins said he has finished.
I think if you ask these guys who is the leader and who they look to they would say it is me, hopefully, Atkins said. I just have to keep leading by example every day and being the voice that they need.
I tried to talk more and it kind of came just naturally, just being in my position. I have to be the guy that calls out the plays. I need to know where everybody has to be. That part came naturally. Its the other little things, telling guys to rotate on defense, getting on somebody to go get a rebound, thats the part I had to work on. I think Ive done a good job at it.
Atkins is also being counted on to leave a point guard and future leader in place as he takes Jackson under his wing this season. Its a role he feels ready to take on this year.
Im trying to teach him everything I know, Atkins said. I know he will be a great point guard for years to come.
Atkins isnt just thinking about helping the team in the future, he wants to do something in his final year that the Irish havent done in the last three seasons – make a deep NCAA tournament run.
But Atkins also knows that the Irish first have to navigate their way through the ACC like they used to in the Big East.
I definitely want to do good in the ACC, Atkins said. Thats No. 1, because we wont get to the tournament if we dont. First and for most, we are going to have to do well in the ACC. After that, because Im very confident that we will, making a run in the tournament is next. Thats definitely on my mind.