When it comes to wide receivers, sometimes you have to look across the line of scrimmage to find the best judges of talent.
Washington Redskins rookie Leonard Hankerson was slow to impress coaches during the summer and was inactive for the first five games of the season. In practice each day, though, cornerback DeAngelo Hall could see why Coach Mike Shanahan nabbed the 23-year-old receiver in the third round of April's draft. Hankerson wasn't playing in the games, but he was practicing like it.
“Hank was on the scout team busting my butt more than the game,” Hall said. “I think we’ve been petitioning for him to get out there and get his opportunity.”
Hankerson is finally getting his chance. He's expected to make his second career start Sunday at Miami. The Redskins entered the season pleased with their depth at wide receiver, but Santana Moss and Niles Paul both are sidelined with injuries, Anthony Armstrong has struggled and the team released Donte Stallworth this week. Hankerson hopes to provide a spark for the Redskins’ moribund passing attack.
With Moss out of the lineup, the Redskins top two wide receivers are Jabar Gaffney and Terrence Austin. Gaffney has 31 catches and Austin 8. No other NFL team’s top two receivers have combined for fewer than 45 receptions this year. Eight teams, in fact, have at least two wide receivers who’ve posted more catches each than any Redskins receiver.
Washington’s top receiving target has been tight end Fred Davis, who leads the team with 40 catches. In recent weeks, quarterback John Beck has struggled to get any of his wide receivers involved, and Hankerson hopes that changes this weekend.
The likelihood of Hankerson in a starring role seemed a distant possibility not long ago. During the preseason, he dropped balls in both practices and games. He made the 53-man roster as a project, and even coaches weren't sure when he'd be ready to contribute.
Hankerson struggled with the transition from college to pro ball more than perhaps any player in the Redskins locker room. He’d always been the star. His high school team, St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made three straight trips to the state title game. He was coached by eight-time Pro Bowler Cris Carter and received tutoring from Mark Duper, a three-time Pro Bowler.
Hankerson accepted a scholarship to the University of Miami, near his home, and was a regular starter by his junior year. His senior season was one of the best ever posted by a Hurricanes receiver. He hauled in 72 catches for a school-record 1,156 yards. His 13 touchdowns broke Michael Irvin’s school mark for most in a season. Hankerson left Miami as one of only three players in school history to post consecutive 800-yard receiving seasons, joining Irvin and Andre Johnson.
“Being No. 1 back in school, then coming here being No. 2, you’ve got to work hard each and every day to try to get No. 1,” Hankerson said. “That's what the difference was. Because I was No. 1, it probably slowed me down a little bit from busting my tail every day.”
Redskins wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell stayed in Hankerson’s ear, encouraging him to study veterans such as Moss and Gaffney. Coaches kept telling Hankerson he had to learn how to practice and play like a professional.
“He knew what he needed to do, but I also knew he was frustrated,” McCardell said. “He has high expectations of himself and everybody else had high expectations of him.”
Hankerson’s mother, Lisa Williams, flew up for his first pro game, the Redskins’ Week 1 contest against the New York Giants. But Hankerson didn’t dress and he told her stay in Florida the next several Sundays.
“For the couple weeks that I didn't dress, I just been going to practice, grinding out each and every day,” Hankerson said, “doing the little things it takes . . . practicing like it’s a game.”
Hankerson improved each week, and the drops that plagued him since college seemed to decrease. There was no magic solution, he said. In training camp, he was eager to impress coaches and usually started running before he had fully secured the ball.
“I was just very anxious to make a play,” he said.
Hankerson watched four more games from the sideline and was finally active for the first time after Moss broke a bone in his hand. Hankerson was held without a catch in his Oct. 23 debut, but one week later, against the Bills in Toronto, he pulled in a 23-yarder to convert a third down late in the first quarter.
Hankerson earned his first start in last Sunday's loss to the San Francisco, playing in 63 of 64 offensive snaps. He finished the game with 34 yards on four catches.
“I think he’s got a good future in the NFL,” Shanahan said. “He’s the type of size you look for and he’s got the type of hands and speed. Hopefully, he can get to the next level.”
Hankerson hopes this Sunday’s game solidifies his place. He’ll be playing in front of a hometown crowd. His mom will be in the stands again, as will about 50 other family and friends.
“Sometimes you just wait your time,” McCardell said, “and the right time will pop up and you can show everybody who you are.”