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Notre Dame

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Atkinson leaving opens up backfield

4 running backs left on roster for Irish

Atkinson III

– Notre Dame’s backfield became less crowded Wednesday.

Running back George Atkinson III filed paperwork to enter the NFL draft and will skip his senior season, according to multiple reports. Blue & Gold Illustrated first reported the junior’s decision.

Atkinson’s decision loosens up a running back group that would have been five deep next season and ends his career with a suspension.

Atkinson started 2013 as the Irish’s No. 1 back, but he slipped behind junior Cam McDaniel and freshman Tarean Folston as the year progressed.

He could have fallen deeper down the depth chart next season as Greg Bryant returns after taking a medical redshirt as a freshman because of a knee injury. Notre Dame also returns junior Amir Carlisle.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly began to turn away from Atkinson in the final six games last season in favor of McDaniel and Folston.

McDaniel finished with team highs in carries (152) and yards (705) and matched Atkinson for the team lead in touchdowns with three. Atkinson was second on the team in carries (93) and yards (555), but 64 of his carries came in the first seven games and he was suspended because of a violation of team rules before the Irish’s 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28.

Foltson had only 11 carries for 89 yards in the first seven games but gained 401 yards on 77 carries with two touchdowns in the final six games. Carlisle had 47 carries for 204 yards last season.

Bryant, who gained 13 yards on three carries before his surgery, impressed Kelly during the team’s bowl practices.

“I think we did the right thing with him not playing this year, because I can see where his development and how he’s going to help our football team next year,” Kelly said. “He’s a dynamic player.”

Atkinson, who also handled kickoff returns, finishes with 153 carries for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns and 3,144 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons. His father, former Oakland Raiders defensive back George Atkinson Jr., told Blue & Gold Illustrated that his son’s decision to leave early had nothing to do with the suspension.

Atkinson posted on his Twitter account that he was banned from the Pinstripe Bowl because he was texting family members during the team meal, but he deleted the post. And Kelly was frosty about Atkinson’s future with the Irish after the bowl game.

“I haven’t made that decision yet,” Kelly said.

Atkinson, who received a late-round grade on his NFL evaluation, made the decision for Kelly by joining defensive lineman Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt in skipping a final year of eligibility to enter the draft.