When the final seconds ran off the clock in the College Football Playoff title game Monday night, Auburn High alum Avery Atkins could call himself a national champion.
Atkins handled the kickoff duties for the No. 1 LSU Tigers in their 42-25 victory over No. 3 Clemson in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The sophomore had five touchbacks on seven kickoffs and one tackle to help LSU finish its first undefeated season since 1958.
Atkins was one of two players from the area to play a significant role for his team in college football’s biggest game. Clemson sophomore receiver and Central-Phenix City alum Justyn Ross had five receptions for 76 yards in the loss.
Two other local players — LSU’s Peter Parrish and Clemson’s Ray Thornton — were at the game but did not play. Like Ross, Parrish and Thornton are Central alums. LSU running backs coach Tommie Robinson, a Central alum, was also part of the winning team.
The game’s opening minutes featured Atkins and Ross on back-to-back plays. After Atkins opened the championship showdown with a kickoff for a touchback, Ross caught the first-down pass from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence before lateraling the ball to Travis Etienne.
LSU’s first-half surge meant a busy opening 30 minutes for Atkins. In the opening two quarters alone, he had four touchbacks on five kickoffs, with the lone non-touchback being a planned pooch kick before halftime.
Ross entered Monday night’s title game with 61 receptions for 789 yards and eight touchdowns in his second season at Clemson. He had shined in last year’s championship game, as he had his national coming-out party with six receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown to help Clemson top Alabama last January.
Atkins, meanwhile, has been LSU’s kickoff specialist since his true freshman season in 2018. He was part of an LSU team that reached the national championship game for the first time since 2012.
Atkins entered Monday’s title game with 105 touchbacks on 124 kickoffs in 2019, which gave the sophomore a touchback rate of 84.7.
Atkins talked about what led him to LSU in the first place during an interview with the Opelika-Auburn News in October.
“Coach O (LSU head coach Ed Orgeron) and (special teams coordinator Greg McMahon) are the reasons that I came,” Atkins said. “It was just how down-to-earth (Orgeron) was. He really touched me on a personal level. It was kind of one of those things where everything was lining up the way I really prayed and hoped that it would. After that meeting, I called them the very next day and was like, ‘This is where I want to go.’”
Thanks to that decision, Atkins has a championship ring coming his way.