By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE -- ESPN airing fawning features on him. Microphones and cameras trained on his grandfather watching from the stands with recently restored eyesight. Even talk of Heisman Trophy consideration.
Yes, Bishop Sankey is undeniably a star now. And not just in Seattle.
In all of college football.
You still wouldn't know he was the nation's leading rusher midway through this season by talking to him, though.
"It's not really too different. It hasn't been too overwhelming," the understated Huskies running back said through a shy chuckle of all the recent attention. "Really just trying to stay focused with football and my school. Just work on the things I need to work on."
His work is going splendidly so far.
Sankey’s 899 yards rushing and 149.8 yards per game both lead the nation. His nine rushing touchdowns are one behind Antonio Andrews of Western Kentucky, Jahwan Edwards of Ball State and Marion Grice of Arizona State – 20th-ranked Washington’s opponent Saturday at 3 p.m in Tempe -- for the most in the country.
And the former Wildcat-formation quarterback at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane isn't doing it against South Seattle Community College, either. In the last two weeks Sankey's become the first guy to rush for 100 yards against Stanford and 100 yards against Oregon this season.
The jolting junior had 167 more yards rushing with two touchdowns last week. Each score brought the Huskies to within seven points of the second-ranked Ducks in the second half. He moved him to seventh on UW's career rushing list during the game.
Sankey has 2,525 yards despite only taking over the featured-back role in the second game of last season because of Jesse Callier's season-ending knee injury. That was only 18 starts ago.
Last week Sankey passed Rashaan Shehee, Rich Alexis, Louis Rankin and Hugh McElhenny on the Huskies' all-time rushing list. He enters Saturday's game 111 yards behind Jacque Robinson for sixth place.
Since it's the season's midway point it's fun to say Sankey is on pace to set the Huskies' single-season records for yards rushing (currently held by Corey Dillon, 1,695 yards in 1996) and attempts (Dillon had 301 attempts that same season). Sankey has 159 carries through six games, and odds are Washington has seven games remaining in this season with a bowl likely.
But wait, there's more.
Sankey is on pace to end this season third behind Napoleon Kaufman (4,106) and Chris Polk (4,049) on UW's all-time list -- with his senior season still to go. At this rate Sankey would end his junior year fewer than 700 yards -- for him, less than half a season -- from Kaufman's record.
True to his understated nature, Sankey doesn't give much time to thinking about any of this.
"No, I haven't thought about it yet." he said of UW's records with a shrug following Thursday morning’s practice at the Dempsey indoor facility. "I just try to take it one week at a time, to be productive each week and help my team out."
I asked him about being mentioned among Kaufman, Polk, McElhenny, Dillon, Rankin, et al, among guys whose pictures are painted on the walls of the running backs' meeting room Sankey is in each day.
"I'm aware of there is a history in this program, and that there have been really great running backs in the past," Sankey said. "Our running-backs coach (Johnny Nansen) always mentions them, talks about them. They've meant a lot to this program.
"I guess it's a cool idea to just be mentioned with those guys right now," Sankey said, almost bashfully. "Honestly, it's just been a testament to how hard we've worked this offseason, and my O-line. Everyone is doing a good job, and our running-back corps as well are doing a good job."
Coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense is predicated on a power running game off which he likes to run play-action passes. In just over 1½ seasons Sankey has proven more than durable and dependable as that guy around which Sarkisian’s offense revolves.
His first fumble in 159 carries this season came last week in the first half against Oregon. He responded after halftime with a 60-yard touchdown sprint on fourth and 1. And no matter how hard the defense is trying to hit him, he spins and cuts and slides and bulls for yards upon yards each week.
“He’s so good. He’s so durable. He’s so well-conditioned. And his mental toughness is unparalleled,” Sarkisian said. “He’s just able to carry the ball in the high-20s, 30s (carries per game) – and still look fresh doing it in the second half.
“About a year ago at this time is really when he started to make the turn of being an elite running back, in our eyes. It took a while for everyone else to see that. And he just hasn’t changed.”
Dating to about this time last season, a Friday-night win at California, Sankey has 1,672 yards and 16 touchdowns in 11 games, an average of 152 yards and 1.45 touchdowns per week. And that includes last month’s 56-0 rout of Idaho State, which Sankey left after two series and 77 yards on just four carries.
Sankey is a communications major, which he declared last spring. He's not yet sure what specialty he may want to pursue in that -- writing, broadcasting, public relations.
He's already got one communications attribute: downplaying himself.
And the way he's going, he may not have to worry about finding a job outside of football upon graduating from UW.
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Sarkisian was impressed with the 2,550 tickets UW has sold for Saturday’s game, especially since Arizona State is a 2½-hour-plus plane ride from Seattle. Another 200-plus will be rooting for the Huskies in Tempe with tickets distributed through the football staff and players’ allotment. “That’s awesome,” Sarkisian said. “Our fans are tremendous.” … With Saturday’s high temperature in Sun Devil Stadium expected to be 88 degrees and a 3 p.m. kickoff, the coach said his offensive line is prepared to play more than the five or six guys they’ve used in most games this season. Erik Kohler is in line to make his first start of the season, at left guard for injured Dexter Charles. James Atoe and Shane Brostek are next up on the line. … Sarkisian said field-goal kicker and punter Travis Coons will again kick off with freshman Cameron Van Winkle still having a sore back.