A year ago Matt Atkinson was getting injections into his torn hamstring in order to get on the field, rehabilitating the injury whenever possible just to get in a position to catch a pass or run out of Lycoming's Wildcat formation.
He was never healthy as the Warriors came just five points short of winning their 15th Middle Atlantic Conference championship. But he battled. He missed two games to various ailments, but mostly from the hamstring.
He somehow averaged 7.7 yards every time he touched the football on offense. Not bad for a guy playing on one leg.
Matt Atkinson has emerged as Lycoming’s leading receiver this fall. The Warriors visit Widener today.
This year, though? Totally different scenario so far for Lycoming's senior wide receiver.
"No nicks, no bruises," Atkinson said earlier this week. "Last year, every week it was something new. So it's nice not to be dealing with that this year. It's great to be healthy."
And now, the Warriors are getting the Atkinson they were expecting to get a year ago. Through three games he already has as many receptions (18) as he had all last year. He's averaging 13.1 yards on his 20 touches so far, including a long of 43 yards.
He's taken the reigns as Lycoming's top receiver among a talented group which lost dynamic playmaker Jarrin Campman from last year's 8-2 team. He's been everything the Warriors could have hoped for through the first three games of the season. And most importantly, he's been healthy.
"He's always had a really unique skill set," Lycoming head coach Mike Clark said. "He finally understands what it takes to play wide receiver, and he's getting guidance from the best quarterback and wide receiver coach we've ever had here (Scott Brisson). Some guys take longer to figure it out. We always knew he had talent and we've seen flashes of it in the past. But if you look at him now, he's not just a really good athlete playing wide receiver, he's a really good wide receiver."
It's taken Atkinson some time to adjust to his role as a wide receiver. He came to Lycoming as a quarterback from Penncrest High School who had thrown for 3,135 yards and 39 touchdowns as a two-year starter.
After an injury to the labrum in his shoulder all but ended any idea of him being a full-time quarterback, he was tried out on defense for a time before finding a home as a wide receiver. He took to the position well, finishing third on the team with 26 receptions for 269 yards and four touchdowns.
But it wasn't just catching the ball where Atkinson found his value. He also carried the ball out of Lycoming's Wildcat formation 28 times for 228 yards. And scratching his quarterback itch, he completed all four passes he threw out of the Wildcat for more than 100 yards and a touchdown.
What the Warriors thought they had was a triple threat offensive player who was poised to play an even bigger role as a junior, especially when sophomore quarterback Tyler Jenny became the team's starter at the beginning of the season.
But then there were the injuries, starting with the torn hamstring which never seemed to heal. Atkinson has never been blessed with tremendous speed, but playing on a bum wheel he was limited in what he could do.
As Campman took control as the Warriors' top receiver and John Sibel emerged as a well-rounded target, Atkinson's involvement became less and less in the offense. His 18 receptions were eight fewer than his sophomore year. His 18 rushes were 10 fewer than his sophomore year, and he was just 1 of 5 throwing the ball.
After accounting for six touchdowns as a sophomore, he had just one last year, a rushing touchdown against Widener.
"It was too frustrating," Atkinson said. "Football's been my life since I was 5-years old. It's the one thing I always will love. It was frustrating to have a very good end of my sophomore year and then come back for potentially a breakout year and I just got damaged by injuries."
He's making up for it now. His 18 receptions through Lycoming's first three games matches last year's total. His six catches per game is the third-best total in the MAC, and his four receiving touchdowns - two each against Wilkes and Misericordia - leads the MAC.
He'll be on the other side of the field today from Widener's Anthony Davis, likely the most explosive, athletic and elusive receiver in the conference, if not the country. And while maybe Atkinson's individual skills don't quite match up with Davis' the results have similarly successful.
Atkinson has become a complete receiver, able to get open on short routes, intermediate routes, and even catching a 43-yard seam route for a touchdown a week ago. Is he the flashiest player on the field? No. But he's one of the most effective.
"We actually call him Larry Bird. The coaches refer to him as Larry Bird because he's sneaky athletic, not incredibly fast, but he's a great player," Clark said. "If he's the Larry Bird of our wide receivers, then so be it. That's a heck of a compliment."
The biggest adjustment has come in the footwork for Atkinson. It's been years of drilling the steps necessary to get run his routes properly which has helped him play faster than maybe his actual foot speed would suggest he is.
"I feel like I finally hit the peak of being an actual wide receiver. Being a quarterback my whole life, I never had the receiver feet," Atkinson said. "It's something I've been working on since my sophomore year. I feel like my routes are cleaner. You never needed the choppy steps as a quarterback. But now it's something that evolved into my play."
"There was a bit of a learning curve positionally, but he understands the nuances and he has great ball skills," Clark said. "There's just a ton of positives. There's three years of knowledge at the position. He's a better blocker, a better route-runner. He understands his part whether he's getting the ball or not, and it's part of what we're trying to accomplish. All of those are why he's playing at the level he's playing at."