NASHVILLE — Titans rooking running back Bishop Sankey has been a student twice over since becoming the team’s second-round draft pick last month.
On one hand, he’s been carrying the Titans playbook on a team-issued iPad. On the other, he’s got the textbooks needed to wrap up his junior year at Washington.
Because of NFL rules, rookies can’t join teams until their work for the current school year is complete. With Washington on the quarter system, that meant Sankey — the heir apparent to replace Chris Johnson in the Titans’ backfield — didn’t take his final exam until this past Tuesday. In the meantime, his teammates — veterans and rookies alike — have been working through 10 OTAs (organized team activities) over the past three weeks. Sankey arrived in time to participate in the final one on Thursdays.
"It’s just a great feeling to be back," Sankey said, "Finally being able to come back to Nashville and get in the flow of things. It was a little tough because you just want to be here and get in the mix. Sometimes, you feel like you are falling behind, but today I felt good just getting back into the swing of things."
There is no doubt that Sankey is behind, especially if you ask Titans running backs coach Sylvester Croom.
"Oh, he’s behind, without a doubt," Croom said of Sankey, the first running back taken in last month’s NFL Draft with the 54th overall pick. "You can’t miss as many snaps as he has missed and not be behind. You’re talking about hours and hours of film work, hundreds of repetitions that he’s missed, and just the comfort zone of just being around these players and learning what playing in the National Football League is all about."
Not that Sankey hasn’t been on the Titans’ practice field already. He participated in a three-day rookie minicamp last month before returning to the west coast to finish two courses — History of Mass Media and Mass Media Law — as part of his communications major. But that’s nothing compared to practicing with a full roster of veterans.
"The more reps I get, the more comfortable I’ll feel with making those movements again in actual practice time setting," Sankey. "One or two times, I did slip up and didn’t run the right play, but that will be corrected in time and the more reps I get."
Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt didn’t hold Sankey back today in any part of the practice, but rather wanted to get a feel for where he was heading into next week’s mandatory three-day team minicamp. "Mentally, he is in good shape," Whisenhunt said of the 5-foot-10, 209-pound Sankey. "But physically when he gets on the field with the speed, he’s not there yet. So, that is going to take some time to adjust to.
"You can see it. You can talk to him, and he can tell you what he’s doing. But (it’s) when those guys are moving around and the speed going the way it is, which is natural."
The Titans are already seeing Sankey’s versatility that made him appealing as a fit in the new offense. He’s expected to emerge as the lead back, but also share time with veteran Shonn Greene, who’s more of a power runner but has been slowed last year and this spring with knee surgeries. The Titans also signed versatile Dexter McCluster through free agency, and he’s expected to line up in a variety of positions. Also in the mix is veteran running back Jackie Battle, a special teams standout.
Last season as a junior at Washington, Sankey rushed for 1,870 yards, fourth-best in the country, with 20 touchdowns. He also had 304 receiving yards and a touchdown and was named second-team All-American. As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"The things that we saw in the evaluation process and in the rookie minicamp," Croom said, "and the work that he did when he was here verified that, a lot of it is his versatility. We think he can develop into a good every-down back. He’s a strong runner who’s smart. He’s athletic enough to make people miss. He’s strong enough to run through tackles. He has good running instincts and good vision. He catches the ball. And he’s physical enough to be a good pass protector."
Best of all, Sankey’s complete attention can now be turned to helping fill the void left by the departure of Johnson, who rushed for 7,965 yards the past six seasons. He led the Titans in rushing every season since being the team’s first-round draft pick in 2008.
After declining to renegotiate a contract that would pay him $8 million this year, Johnson was released. He later signed with the Jets.
"I think I can have a big impact," Sankey said of his rookie season with the Titans. "For me, it’s just getting in the plays and comfortable with the playbook. Once I get used to everything, practicing with the vets and getting used to the speed and things like that, I think I can have a big impact."
If that is to happen, time is ticking for Sankey to come out of next week with plenty of work, especially with it put on film for coaches to dissect and Sankey to learn.
"Every day now is critical," Croom said. "It can’t be wasted. We’ll have to do extra work to get him caught up. Thank goodness the way we do things as helped as far our technology with our iPads.
"It’s helped him to be not as behind as he would have been otherwise, but it is still a lot of ground to catch up."
After next week’s mandatory minicamp that runs Tuesday-Thursday, the Titans break until reporting to training camp in late July.
"(Sankey’s) done the work," Croom said. "He’s been very diligent. He has been professional about doing the things that we asked him to do, but that’s been a limited process because there is only so much you can do when he’s not here."