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Sky’s the limit

2013 could be breakout year for Rams’ Atkins

Former Mitchell County star and Albany State junior Jessie Atkins is 13th in the nation in receiving after Saturday’s season opener at North Greenville, where he caught 11 passes for 162 yards and two TDs. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

Former Mitchell County star and Albany State junior Jessie Atkins is 13th in the nation in receiving after Saturday’s season opener at North Greenville, where he caught 11 passes for 162 yards and two TDs. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Rams’ wideout Jessie Atkins makes a diving catch Saturday against North Greenville. Atkins and Rams QB Frank Rivers connected on two touchdowns in the fourth quarter as ASU erased a 17-point deficit. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald)

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Albany State junior and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield walks off the field Saturday during the season opener against North Greenville. Whitfield nearly caught a game-winning interception in the final minutes but was ruled out of bounds before he secured possession. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald)

ALBANY — Albany State receiver Jessie Atkins torched the North Greenville secondary Saturday, catching 11 passes for a career-high 162 yards and two TDs in the Rams’ season-opening loss

So how does the former Mitchell County star plan to follow up the best game of his career?

“I guess you will have to come out Saturday and see,” Atkins said, referring to the Rams’ home opener this weekend against No. 19 Tuskegee.

Atkins, Rams quarterback Frank Rivers and head coach Mike White all believe that Atkins hasn’t hit his ceiling yet and could be in for a breakout year as a junior.

“He made some tough catches (Saturday), and the thing about him is that he has a very good knack of catching a ball and then getting yards after the catch,” White said.

With his performance against North Greenville, Atkins is already 13th in the nation in receiving yards and tied for eight in receptions, and those are rankings that could even be better if not a for a couple of dropped passes.

“Jessie made some big plays, but I actually thought he could have played better. I thought our receivers put a lot of balls on the ground. That’s why you see them over there right now working on their hands,” White said during Tuesday’s practice. “His day could have possibly been even bigger.”

Atkins played like a giant in the fourth quarter when he caught both of his touchdowns and helped the Rams erase a 17-point deficit in the final 12 minutes. His first TD was with 11:38 left in the game and came on a 31-yard pass from Rivers that pulled the Rams to within 11 points. A Phillip Moore rushing TD four minutes later made it a one-score game, and then Atkins caught a 14-yard TD from Rivers on a 4th-and-12 to give ASU a 24-23 lead with 2:55 left.

NGU ended up marching back down the field and kicking a game-winning field goal with 42 seconds left, but it was a fourth quarter that showed the type of chemistry Rivers and Atkins developed during the preseason.

“And we are working to make it even better,” Atkins said. “As we go out here in practice, we try to keep the connection going. As me and him grow stronger, we try to help the other receivers get the connection I have with him also. We want it to be a group thing, instead of just a two- or three-man show.”

The only other receivers who caught balls from Rivers were Devonta Osborne (4 receptions, 57 yards) and Moultrie native Orion Ponder (2 rec., 7 yards). Rivers, who transferred to ASU during the summer from Grambling State and worked extensively in the preseason with Atkins, said he leaned on Atkins on Saturday during the fourth-quarter comeback.

“We were having some struggles at the wideout position. He was one of the guys making plays, so I just had to feed him while he was hot,” said Rivers, who completed four passes for 82 yards to Atkins in the fourth quarter.

Atkins’ 162 receiving yards surpassed his previous career high of 145 last season against Wingate, but what impressed White the most about his star receiver was the way he bounced back from a cramp that temporarily sidelined him midway through the third quarter.

“That’s what I really admire about him on Saturday, his effort,” White said.

WHITFIELD’S GAME-WINNING INT … OR NOT: Larry Whitfield thought he had sealed the deal to preserve one of the biggest fourth-quarter comebacks in ASU history.

He was certain he stayed in bounds after catching an interception with just over a minute left in Saturday’s game that would’ve ended North Greenville’s drive.

That’s just not how the officials saw it.

“To me it looked like two feet got in, and then I ran out of bounds,” Whitfield said Tuesday. “When I heard them blow the whistle, I kept trying to persuade them and kept running up field. But they weren’t going for it.”

Whitfield, a former Monroe star and starting linebacker for the Rams, trailed North Greenville receiver Mychal Cannon on an out route on a 2nd-and-long near midfield, and Whitfield was able to catch the ball near the sideline after a high pass bounced off Cannon’s hands.

The play happened on North Greenville’s sideline, leaving White and his coaching staff unsure if the officials correctly called Whitfield out of bounds until they had a chance to watch game film Sunday.

And even after watching the film, White still wasn’t sure if Whitfield stayed in bounds after the catch.

“It was very close, and it could have been the game,” White said. “You could tell the body language of everybody on (the North Greenville) sideline that they thought it was an interception.”

Whitfield, meanwhile, is still waiting on his first game-winning INT at any level during his football career.

“I wish that would have been the one,” he said. “I really wish that would have been my first game-winner.”

WHITE PROUD OF COMEBACK: When Tuskegee and ASU meet Saturday at the Albany State Coliseum, it will be a matchup of the two teams that were picked in the preseason to meet for the conference championship game.

Tuskegee is coming off a season-opening win against Alabama A&M and might be the toughest opponent in the regular season for the Rams. That means the late comeback against North Greenville — even though it ended with a loss — was vital for an Albany State that is looking for any momentum heading into Saturday’s game.

“I was very encouraged with the way we hung in there,” White said. “You have to be encouraged by that part. As we go forward into (Saturday’s game), that’s the type of attitude we have to have. That’s a winning attitude.”

ODDS & ENDS: White was denied win No. 100 for the second time and will try to reach the century mark with a win vs. Tuskegee. White’s first attempt at his 100th career win came during last year’s Fountain City Classic when Fort Valley State ended the Rams’ season in Columbus, which means this will be the first time White has a chance to reach the milestone at home. … Georgia Military College transfer and Valdosta native Phillip Moore was also a big part of the Rams’ comeback Saturday. He rushed five times for 40 yards in the fourth quarter alone and finished with a game-high 69 yards on 10 carries. “He did a really good job,” White said about Moore. “He read the blocks well. Some of the backs missed some reads that cost us some plays, but he did a good job with that. He made that one defender miss a lot of the time, so he was a huge spark for us.” … The Rams haven’t started a season 0-1 since 2006 when they lost their season opener to North Carolina Central. During that 2006 season, the Rams lost in Week 2 to Valdosta State before breaking through with a win in Week 3 vs. Kentucky State.