Bishop Sankey leads the nation with 184.5 yards per game. In just 15 games, he’s ranked among the top rushers in 124 years of Husky football. Yet he remains mostly anonymous and unknown -- just the way he likes it.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Click here to sign-up and recieve Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE – Bishop Sankey is unfailingly understated and polite.
So much so, as he answered questions outside the Huskies’ locker room immediately following his latest romp last weekend in Chicago he didn’t let on how anxious he was to walk away and get to the team bus. His mother, grandmother and other family members who had made the six-hour drive from his native northeast Ohio to Soldier Field were waiting there. They were outside the stadium for a short reunion and celebration of their guy’s 21st birthday that was coming a day later, before Sankey had to travel home with his Huskies.
Asked after the game if he had already gotten with his family he hadn’t seen in months, Sankey politely but earnestly replied, “Not yet.”
It was the first time he’d been slowed in more than a year.
The nation’s leading rusher is rampaging, zooming No. 17 Washington to its highest ranking in a decade. It’s a dizzying ascent for an unknown who was the Huskies’ third option at running back entering last season. And it’s a feel-good comeback for a supremely liked and trusted, refreshingly grounded young man who has rebounded so exquisitely from fumbling at kickoff at his own goal line on his first touch of the ball as a freshman two years ago.
Sankey has rushed for 1,142 yards over his last seven games. That average of 163 per game isn’t just good, it’s a record-shattering. Extrapolate that over a 13-game season and Sankey would have 2,119 yards rushing. That would obliterate the UW single-season record of 1,695 yards that Corey Dillon set in 1996.
And to think: He got his chance last season to start only after Jesse Callier, the supposed heir to Chris Polk as feature back, and Deontae Cooper both were lost for all of 2012 to knee injuries.
Asked Wednesday if he thinks Sankey will soon reach the level of the all-time great running backs in the 124 years of Husky football, coach Steve Sarkisian gave this dead-on reply:
“I kind of think he’s already there.”
Yet Sankey is so understated that even Seattle doesn’t know much about him, let alone the rest of the country.
Moments after he romped on Illinois for 208 more yards on 35 carries and two scores, college football’s top running back was standing alone in a gray sweat suit. He was leaning against a metal railing outside UW’s locker room. No fanfare. No glory. Sankey looked as anonymous as the many stadium workers about his age that were walking past him in that service tunnel beneath Soldier Field.
He’s still so relatively unknown for being the No. 1 back in the land, he might as well be wearing a paper bag over his helmet and jersey number Saturday when Washington (2-0) hosts Idaho State (2-0) beginning at noon at Husky Stadium.
And that’s just the way he wants it.
“I’m just a chill guy. Laid back,” Sankey told my GoHuskies.com colleague Monica Lee on Monday, two days after 2012’s out-of-nowhere star set his career high for rushing yards in Illinois.
“I like to relax in my free time because during the season with workouts and everything, a lot of times we don’t really get a lot of free time. So in my spare time I’m pretty much just relaxing or I’m on Twitter (at @_GotTheJuiceNow), Instagram, social media. I like social media.”
Everybody, social media included, should already be liking him in return.
Not that he is basking in all – make that, any – of what he’s been doing.
“You know, as a team and as a running-back corps and me personally, we are all just thinking about moving forward and onto the next game. Just constantly getting better,” Sankey told me Saturday in that tunnel beneath Soldier Field. “You can’t get complacent. That’s something we preach in the program.”
He has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his last eight games. He has two 200-yard games in his last three starts. Last week he joined Napoleon Kaufman, Louis Rankin and Dillon as the only Huskies to rush for 200 yards in multiple games.
He ran for 205 in December’s MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. His mother Julie Becker, who had Bishop when she was 17, attended that game in which Sankey set UW’s bowl record for yards rushing. His grandmother Carol Becker and his father Christopher Sankey, a career Air Force sergeant, were there, too.
Sankey was a real slacker in the one non-200-yard game he’s had in his last three starts, the opener three weeks ago against Boise State. He managed only 161 yards and two touchdowns that night.
When I mentioned all this to him this week, when I brought up he is not just leading the country in rushing by that he is more than 20 yards per game ahead of anyone else in major college football, he just shrugged.
"It hasn’t really changed too much for me," he said. "Obviously my family and everybody are happy with what I’ve done and happy with the success we’ve had.
"But I haven’t seen much of a shift yet or change, personally. For the offense, I think it says we have the ability to run.”
Sankey’s ability is proving to be as unique as any in Husky history.
For instance: Sarkisian says Sankey’s “probably the best dancer on the team.”
“But he’s not a guy to stand up in front of the team and give team speeches,” his coach said.
His runs aren’t always spectacular. In fact, at times Sankey’s so patient, so “chill,” as he calls it, with the ball in his arms it looks like he may never accelerate during a play.
Then he decides on a cut and – zip! – he’s 20 yards downfield before the defense realizes what just happened.
“He’s just a natural runner,” Huskies running backs coach Johnny Nansen said.
Sankey, his offensive line and the Huskies’ entire running game is benefitting from Sarkisian’s go-go, no-huddle offense. The faster the Huskies have run plays, the more Sankey’s numbers, and that of Washington’s entire running game, have skyrocketed. Sankey has 369 of UW’s 541 yards rushing and three of its five rushing touchdowns through two games. The Huskies have run 85 players in each of those games, nearly 16 more per game than they ran last season.
“Oh, I think it’s been huge,” Sarkisian said of the link between the no-huddle and Sankey’s success. “I think it’s helped our offensive line in a confidence standpoint of coming off the football. I think it’s helped in some of the fatigue that it puts in defensive linemen and our guys firing off and doing things the right way.
“He’s got a great feel, he really does,” the coach said of Sankey’s calm running.
Nansen draws a parallel with Sankey’s running to that of Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, the running backs who excelled in recent years in Oregon’s super-accelerated, no-huddle, spread offense.
“Oh, there’s no doubt,” Nansen said. “Obviously the defense is getting tired, not getting in their run gaps. Him understanding that is really helping him out.”
Sankey’s prodigious production is on par with that of Polk, who left Sarkisian’s offense at UW after the 2011 season while second on its all-time rushing list. It’s akin to what LenDale White and Reggie Bush did in the offense Sarkisian coordinated while winning Rose Bowls at USC, before the coach got to Washington in January 2009.
“You know, we are a run-first team. I know people always want to label me as a guy that all he wants to do is throw the ball. Our running numbers last year and even into this year, we run the ball about 60 percent of the time – which is where we want to be,” Sarkisian said.
Indeed, in the 15 games dating to the time Sankey took over as lead back when Callier got hurt early in the 2012 opener, UW has run it on 570 of 970 plays. That’s 59 percent of the time.
Last week at Illinois, Sarkisian called the same running play off the left side out of the same formation seven consecutive times. Sankey ran five of those plays for 61 yards, including the touchdown from a yard out that put Washington up 17-3. (Callier ran the other two attempts on the drive in his return from reconstructive knee surgery).
“And the ball hit in different spots every time,” Sarkisian said. “That’s the sign of a good runner. He understands the run and the blocking schemes, and then is patient in hitting the holes when they are there. And then he doesn’t take many head-on hits. He kind of slippery. He slides and ducks and gets under tackles. He’s just a really good player.
“I’m not surprised by what he’s doing right now.”
Asked if Sankey is indeed underestimated outside – or maybe even inside – the Pac-12, Sarkisian chuckled.
“I hope so,” he said. “We love it.”
“A GREAT MENTALITY … TOWARDS LIFE”
Wednesday Sarkisian was asked if the uptick in notoriety now might change his shooting-star runner.
The coach scoffed.
“Nah,” Sarkisian said. “Bishop’s really humble young man. You know, he comes from a military background. He’s a really disciplined kid. He has not changed his approach from a year ago to training camp to this week. He comes to work every day. You wouldn’t know he carried the ball 35 times the other night. Monday he was trying to get right in there. Shoot, we had to shut him down.
|“He’s a great guy. His teammates love him. He’s fun. He’s got a great mentality – not just towards football, towards school, towards life.
“He’s a great guy. His teammates love him. He’s fun. He’s got a great mentality – not just towards football, towards school, towards life.
“He’s a good kid.”
People read that Sankey went to Gonzaga Prep, see his hometown listed as Spokane, and assume he’s from eastern Washington, a would-be Cougar that became a Husky after a late recruiting visit two winters ago.
He is, in fact, the product of many places as the son of a career sergeant in the Air Force. His birthplace of Ohio. Then Washington. There's California and Nevada.
Bishop and his mother in Ohio remain close and talk regularly on the phone.
"My mom had me when she was really young," the son Julie Becker had with Christopher Sankey told me in December. "They were dating and then split up. They never married."
His grandparents Carol and Bill Becker, who in December missed the Las Vegas bowl trip because he recently had hip-replacement surgery, raised Bishop from birth until age eight in their home in Wadsworth, Ohio, outside Akron.
"From preschool and kindergarten they were always helping me with homework. They were religious, so I always went to church every Sunday," Sankey said. "They gave me the foundation for my life.
"Big credit to those two."
Carol Becker has a degree in elementary education. She also worked for a decade as an emergency medical technician in the Wadsworth area. But when one of her two adopted daughters had a baby at age 17, Carol knew it was time to be a stay-at-home mom for a third time.
"It's never ideal to have a teenage daughter having an unplanned pregnancy. So we dealt with that the best we could," she said. "When we realized that our daughter would not be able to be a parent, right then my husband and I decided to step in. And I am so glad we did.
“It was challenging; we were older. But it was very rewarding. Bishop brought a lot of laughter and joy into our home."
At times Bishop visited his father, when the Air Force had the administrative sergeant stationed at Nellis Air Force Base 10 minutes outside Las Vegas. More often Christopher Sankey came to Ohio to visit his son in those early years.
Carol Becker credits her daughter for having maintained a good relationship with her son to this day.
“It was just a rough time for her to raise a child,” Carol Becker said.
When he was 8 Bishop moved to Dayton, Ohio, where the Air Force had assigned his father to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Father and son moved again after Bishop's eighth-grade year, to Spokane, when the elder Sankey was assigned to Fairchild AFB outside that city.
It's telling of Sankey's natural talent that he became the career rushing leader in the Greater Spokane League with 4,355 yards, was first-team all-state, and was the Inland Northwest Youth Awards Male Athlete of the Year for 2010 despite being a new kid not only to the Gonzaga Prep program but to the state.
It’s telling of his responsibility and his coaches’ trust in the new guy that Sankey got most of those yards at Gonzaga Prep while as a Wildcat-formation quarterback. He took direct snaps and ran between the tackles.
By last winter the Air Force has stationed Bishop's father in San Pedro, Calif., to work with the ROTC program at nearby UCLA. He, Bishop’s stepmother and one of Bishop’s two uncles who are in the Army attended his 200-yard game in the Las Vegas Bowl.
His birthplace of Wadsworth, Ohio, has become something of a Husky enclave in the middle of the football-crazy Buckeye State.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool," Carol Becker told me over the phone in December from Ohio. "And I've got to tell you, you don't know how many people back here follow Bishop and the Huskies.”
SANKEY AT “HOME” IN SEATTLE
By now, what do you think Sankey did for his 21st birthday Sunday, a team off day?
If you guessed he raged at a Seattle nightclub, you still don’t know him.
“I just went out to eat and hung out with a few friends. Kept it simple,” he said, with another shrug. “Had some cupcakes, cake.”
Sankey owns a car, but he doesn’t drive it much. He lives near campus with roommate Kasen Williams, UW’s top wide receiver, so he walks to class.
Sankey doesn’t particularly watch a ton of college football or sports, for that matter, on television.
“I like sitcoms. I’m a sitcom person,” Sankey says. “I’m more so like a Martin and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, some of those old-school sitcoms. A lot of times I watch Netflix. Or sometimes I’ll hop on the sticks – PS3 here and there, but not too much; I’m not too big on video games.”
He and Williams love to go to E J Burger on NE 45th Street at University Avenue. Talking about that with GoHuskies.com’s Lee got Sankey more excited than he was talking to me about his 200-yard rushing games.
Suddenly, he was speaking quickly, excitedly even. So far from “chill.”
“Ok, so, that’s one of our favorite restaurants on the Ave. Kasen, I think he has like a custom-made burger. Every time he goes there people call it the 2K burger,” Sankey said. “I think it’s because it’s the California burger with added – I don’t know what’s added on there. You’ll have to ask him because he basically has his own burger at E J’s.”
When the newest, big Huskies star ventures beyond the campus area, where does he go? To show off his renowned dance moves? Cruising in his car?
“To the mall,” he said. “Just to hang out, do regular stuff, see a lot of movies.
“I’m just a really relaxed guy.”
So what did the nation’s rushing leader have planned following that practice on Monday, the one Sarkisian had to hold him back from two days after his 35 carries and 200 more yards against Illinois? Radio interviews? National spots on ESPN?
“I’ll probably go home,” he said, “and take a nap.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.