The 6-foot-1, 290-pound defensive tackle was the epitome of the strong-but-silent type, retreating to his room and rarely talking with teammates.
A few doors down, however, lived Jeff Owens, Atkins’ future partner on the interior of the Bulldogs’ defensive line. Owens talked. He talked a lot.
In fact, Owens talked so much, it eventually forced Atkins out of his shell. He simply couldn’t keep quiet when Owens was making up stories.
“I got to call him out,” Atkins said. “Jeff likes to talk a lot – yap, yap, yap – tell fabricated stories that didn’t really happen.”
These days, the validity of any statement Owens makes is up for debate between the two defensive tackles who combined for 18.5 tackles-for-a-loss and 7.5 sacks – all from Atkins – last season.
In fact, Owens has come up with a nickname for Atkins now. He calls Atkins “180,” because of the complete reversal in his personality.
“Now I can’t keep him quiet,” Owens said. “He’s overcooking my grits, as I always say.”
Colloquialisms like that are what make it so hard to tune Owens out, and the 300-pound senior from Sunrise, Fla. usually has a big-fish type of story to tell. In fact, they’re usually about fishing.
Owens has a million tales about fishing, but there’s one Atkins will never forget – even if the two can’t exactly agree on all the details.
As it happened, Owens, Atkins and former teammate Dale Dixon went out fishing one night during Atkins’ freshman year.
“It was late night, about 10, 11 o’clock at night, trying to catch some catfish,” Owens said.
Atkins doesn’t quite have the same sea legs Owens prides himself on, and being out on the boat at night wasn’t exactly his cup of tea.
“We were on the boat fishing, it’s dark, you can’t see anything,” Atkins said. “There’s spiders, beetles crawling all over the boat. I’m freaking out because the boat’s like the size of a tub.”
And here’s where the two don’t see eye-to-eye.
“It was a pontoon,” Owens argues.
“It was the size of a Jacuzzi,” Atkins fights back.
In either case, the venture wasn’t proving successful. They hadn’t caught anything, and Atkins was ready to go home.
“Jeff kept saying, ‘Give it some time, give it some time,’ but we didn’t catch nothing,” Atkins said.
So they started the boat and prepared to head for shore, only Atkins had forgotten to pull a rope back into the boat, and it tangled around the engine.
“So we were stuck out there for about 20 minutes trying to get it untangled,” Atkins said.
Atkins still considers the incident a traumatic experience – “I only do daytime fishing now,” he said – but it was a perfect example of the relationship the two have shared.
Atkins was unsure, and Owens pushed him. Atkins made a mistake, and Owens helped him fix it. And when they both arrived safely at their destination, there was a good story to tell.
Things aren’t much different on the field, where Owens and Atkins take pride in tormenting opposing offenses instead of each other. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez routinely says successful defenses must be strong up the middle, and the Bulldogs’ tackles take that to heart.
“I think it’s crucial because up front we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback and make the quarterback make mistakes,” Atkins said. “We set the tempo up front.”
Of course, Atkins is still just a junior with only seven starts under his belt. He’s loaded with talent – “strong, physical, runs a 4.6,” as Owens points out – but he’s still learning the nuances of the defense.
Owens helps with that, too.
“If he forgets a call or they come out with some funky formation, he knows he can always look for me and I’ll help him out,” Owens said.
If not for Owens’ loyalty to his teammates, however, it might not have been that way this season.
The burly senior earned plenty of praise from NFL scouts after his junior season, and he considered moving on to the next level, forgoing his final year at Georgia and leaving Atkins to torment quarterbacks on his own.
The NFL was a possibility, Owens said, but deep down, it was never really a consideration.
“My whole goal coming to Georgia was to win a national championship,” Owens said. “I want to get a black plaque (signifying a national title) to put on this wall, and that’s what I’m here to do. I don’t want to let my teammates down, because Georgia’s bigger than me.”
That doesn’t mean Owens doesn’t have a few personal agendas. In fact, when it comes to individual accolades, his rivalry with Atkins goes way back.
Atkins, too, grew up in Florida and attended a neighboring high school to Owens. As Owens tells it, they met when Atkins was a sophomore in high school, although Atkins argues it was a year later.
In a track-and-field competition, Atkins beat Owens in both discus and shot put – a feat Owens begrudgingly acknowledges.
On the football field, however, Owens claims revenge.
As a sophomore, Atkins was playing offensive line and linebacker, and his team lost to Owens’ team 21-3.
“I thought it was 14-3,” Atkins argues, but Owens disregards the rebuttal.
“I had like two sacks and like 12 tackles,” Owens said.
“And then he woke up from his dream,” Atkins fires back.
Owens tried to buttress the validity of his account by detailing the images of the game. It rained like cats and dogs, he said, and his team laid a beating on Atkins’ squad.
“Yes, I know that, Jeff,” Atkins admits, “but I don’t remember hearing your name at all.”
For Atkins, it’s not just about calling Owens on his tall tales. It’s about a friendly competition that might not seem all that friendly if both players didn’t have smiles plastered across their faces.
At Georgia, the two still place small wagers on who will play better in each game. They root for each other, but a little competition certainly keeps things interesting.
“Just about every play, I always tell him, ‘Meet you at the quarterback, Geno,’ ” Owens said.
Last season, however, Atkins spent a lot more time in the opponent’s backfield than his older teammate. Owens failed to record a sack, while Atkins finished with the second most on the team.
This year, Atkins said the two might start a small pot to put on the line, but last year’s wager was for something different – something more important than money.
“Just respect,” Owens said.
After all, Atkins was no longer the quiet kid who refused to talk to his teammates. He was now a man worthy of Owens’ respect. Atkins had grown into exactly the player Owens knew he could be when he took him out on that fishing boat in the middle of the night.
“He’s 180,” Owens said. “It’s a totally different Geno, and I love this Geno a whole lot better than the old one.”