There is no debating the fact that Bishop Sankey was both talented and productive in 2012, and in my mind, there is really no debating the fact that he will be talented and productive in 2013, especially behind a more stable, experienced offensive line. What is worth discussing is what exactly about the way he runs leads to such success. The running back position allow for an incredible amount of variety in personal style and technique. Looking at the Pac-12 last year, you can have a guy like Stepfan Taylor, a big back that hits the hole hard and keeps his feet churning, and can tote the ball 20-30 times a game. But you can also have a player like De’Anthony Thomas (I know, I know, he’s sort of a wide receiver) that takes a completely different approach coming out of the backfield, which leans on raw speed and elusiveness.
So to get an idea of how Sankey amassed 1439 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in his first year as a starter, I’ll look at the most important elements of running the ball and how they factor into Sankey’s personal style and approach. As you read, it might help to watch this video of highlight’s from the 2012 season:
Sankey’s speed is actually sort of tough to evaluate. He’s clearly fast. There were multiple occasions when he would catch a screen with a defender pursuing downhill with a good angle, only to have Sankey manage to skirt by him. He also has the ability to really turn it on and accelerate once he’s gotten through a hole and sees daylight. The big touchdown run to end the first half against Stanford is a good example of this.
That being said, I don’t think Sankey’s speed is elite, or exceptional for the position. I would think somewhere around 4.5 speed, if he were to run the forty combine-style. Not something that holds him back by any means, especially with his above average acceleration and, for lack of a better term, “situational speed” like I talked about above, but his style isn’t defined by his ability to burn defenders.
At 5’10″ and 200 pounds, Bishop is almost a little small for a feature back, someone who will carry the ball 20-25 times a game. He has a solid build, but he isn’t a bruiser in the Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, or Christine Michael mold (to point to the trio of frighteningly muscular Seahawks backs). He doesn’t just lower his shoulder and blow defenders up. But that doesn’t mean he struggles to get yards after contact. He breaks tackles by virtue of his great balance and footwork, and instead of bowling linebackers or safeties over, he bounces off of them or keeps his legs churning through arm tackles.
That takes strength, certainly, but there are bigger stronger backs in the conference. He is average, or even a bit above average, but like his speed, strength isn’t something he leans on. It doesn’t define him.
To me, this IS what defines Sankey’s running style. Watching tape from last year, what really stood out is the way Sankey managed to quickly identify the hole, however small, and commit to it. No dancing in the backfield, no unnecessary changes in direction. He goes where the development of the play demands that he goes, and any cutting has a specific purpose. He hesitates or jukes only to make specific defenders miss, or to redirect towards an emerging running lane.
I hesitate to call Sankey a “downhill” runner, because it’s a bit more nuanced than that. He does a great job of limiting unnecessary east/west movement, but he is great at running at an angle to follow the grain of his blockers while still maintaining his forward drive and momentum. It results in even his lesser runs often going for three or four yards, and plays without obvious rifts in the defense going for six or seven.
Where a simple one-cut, downhill powerback might try to force the action, hitting a hole that is closing too fast in the hopes that the power behind his lowered shoulder will grind out some yards, Sankey is wonderful at avoiding running into unnecessary dead-ends. If a running lane is there, he’ll take it, but he rarely over-commits.
Another key to Sankey’s style. Despite what I see as roughly average strength and size, for defenders in pursuit, arm tackles just won’t due. Weakly try to grab at his jersey without squaring up and wrapping, and he will dismiss you with a stiff arm or run through the attempt with legs that never fail to churn. Launch like a missile, or simply try to shove him, and you’re likely to give him a boost five or ten yards forward without knocking him over (it happened two or three times, and it was almost comical).
This well above-average balance also allows Sankey to squeeze through holes that seem too small, and to emerge from a crush of linemen that seem likely to swallow him up.
Sankey has such outstanding vision, and stays so focused on getting upfield, that his elusiveness isn’t on display in obvious ways during most plays. It is more subtle. The way he shifts the weight to his left or right side, while leaning that direction, to avoid a diving tackler without breaking his stride, or his ability to zoom up the sideline when it appears certain a defender will force him out of bounds.
He’s capable of some nifty planting to change direction, and can juke and spin defenders off balance better than most, but I believe that a true definition of Sankey’s elusiveness is…well, elusive.
These seem to me to be the most important elements of a back’s running style, and Sankey is at least average in every single one, with his vision and balance popping out the most. However, running isn’t all that a halfback has to do. Blocking and receiving are also key, and in both respects Sankey is very solid, and his relative lack of weakness, the well-rounded nature of his game, seems to bode well for an NFL future, and of course a great deal more success as a Husky in 2013.
Did I miss a category? Do you disagree, or have more to add? Comment below, or tweet @HuskyHaul. Thanks for reading!