The switch from offense to defense hasn't been easy on Thomson senior John Atkins. He and his coaches know he's got to improve on using his hands and getting his pads lower, among other things.
But it's hardly the first time the 6-foot-4-inch, 290-pound defensive tackle has faced adversity.
Since he was 10 or 11, his family's home has burned down three times, with the last fire near the end of 2008.
His mother raised him and his two older sisters, even after she was laid off from her job at H.P. Pelzer three years ago.
"She's been in my life a whole lot, even when my father wasn't there," Atkins said. "She's always been there." Garrison Kendrick, another senior on Thomson's defensive line, has been playing football with Atkins since the two started in the recreation league. This year will be the first time that the two are starting together at defensive tackle.
Atkins and Kendrick occasionally talk about their similar family situations, since Kendrick grew up not knowing his real father. He said Atkins has become a better person and developed a stronger work ethic because of the fires and other hardships in his life. "John stays a pretty even keel, happy type kid for the most part," said Thomson football coach Milan Turner. "He's a very good kid, doesn't get into any trouble or problems."
The player known to his teammates as "John-John" has been turning a lot of heads on the football field, where his impressive combination of size and quickness has gotten attention from seemingly every big
college program in the area.
Oddly, Atkins said it was the University of Massachusetts that was the first school to offer him a scholarship, but since then several schools in the SEC and ACC have extended offers. Over the summer, he
made unofficial visits to Georgia, Georgia Tech, Alabama and Auburn, and he's hoping to make trips to Florida, Clemson and Florida State this fall.
But he knows that could be difficult, because he'll be busy with football and schoolwork. As long as he stays on track, Atkins said he would be the first person in his family to graduate from high school.
Wherever he goes for college, he said he wants to study athletic training or criminal justice.
"He's a good student," said Kendrick, who wants to play football and major in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
"I keep him out of trouble." Atkins started at tight end for the Bulldogs last season, when he caught five passes for 74 yards and scored two touchdowns.
When the coaches told him he'd be moving to play primarily on the defensive side of the ball, he didn't have to be asked to twice.
"I'm happy with it as long as I get to hit somebody," he said. He's aware he still has some things to prove to scouts that are grading him mostly on his potential, since he's playing at a new position.
Turner said he doesn't worry much about the recruiting process, and he doesn't give his most sought-after player any special treatment. "He's still very raw," Turner said.
"He's got a lot to learn and he's like everybody else out there. He's got a ton of room for improvement but he's come in every day and doing a good job and he's getting better."
Even though most recruits have already signed a letter of intent, Atkins doesn't seem to be in too much of a hurry to make his decision.
He said he wants a place that feels like home, and the five schools he's considering are Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Clemson.
He knows the defensive line is the place he's most likely to play at the next level, and actually, the adjustment isn't even the biggest athletic change of his high school career.
As a 6-foot-1 freshman, Atkins' primary focus was basketball. Football was hardly on the radar until the next year, when he grew to 270 pounds and started
becoming the player that earned a four-star rating from ESPN. He got even stronger and bigger during his junior season, when he weighed 300 pounds.
Although Atkins said all the recruiting attention has been fun, he said he doesn't have any specific personal goals. Instead, he wants to just keep getting better and do what he can to help his team get to a
state title. The soft-spoken senior is doing what he can to lead by example, and Kendrick said his friend hasn't let all the attention go to his head.
"It hasn't changed him at all," Kendrick said. "He's still the same John."