ACC Official Sponsors
Tickets & Travel
Legal & Advertising
Oct. 7, 2010
By Bill Hass
True freshmen develop at different rates. While some make significant contributions early, others may take a year or two to grow into their potential.
Just ask wide receiver Leonard Hankerson of Miami.
Although he accumulated a string of accolades at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. he played sparingly as a freshman (six catches, one touchdown) and a sophomore (11 catches, two TDs).
"I thought I was going to make an impact right away, but when I came in I could see it wasn't going to be that easy," Hankerson said. "I had to come in and work for it, had to work hard and do whatever I could do to get on the field.
"There were a couple of receivers ahead of me and I had to wait my turn. I kept working hard in the off-season, kept competing in practice, and finally put it together where I'm making strides right now."
Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon understands that all freshmen are not created equal.
"True freshmen have a tendency to prosper early or prosper late," Shannon said, "and (Hankerson) has prospered late. He did a great job last year; he's doing a phenomenal job this year."
Hankerson's development has been worth the wait. He blossomed as a junior, catching 45 passes for six touchdowns and averaging 17.8 yards per catch. In Miami's four games this season, he has 23 catches for six more TDs and a 16.9-yard average.
He had the finest game of his career last Saturday against Clemson, catching seven balls for 147 yards and three scores. It was the most TDs by a Miami receiver since Santana Moss did it against Rutgers in 1998.
"I kind of dreamed about making plays for the university to help out this offense," Hankerson said. "It felt very good to have a day like that."
Hankerson has a combination of size and speed that makes most coaches salivate. He's 6-3, 205 pounds with the ability to get open deep.
"Any time you can get a big receiver who can run in recruiting, you always take him," Shannon said. "That's something that you always try to look for, big guys that have playmaking ability, big guys that can run. We'll take them any time, and it's hard to find those guys like him."
The Hurricanes (3-1 overall, 1-0 in the Coastal Division) play their biggest rival, Florida State (4-1, 2-0 Atlantic Division) , in Miami this Saturday. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said it can be "a nightmare" trying to stop Hankerson.
"He has size and speed to go over the top of you, make the big plays and run away from you," Fisher said. "At the same time he's a great route-runner. He can stick his foot in the ground and he can shake you. He uses his hands in coverage well, he can run with the ball after he catches it, he understands what he's trying to do as far as where the holes are in zones and how to get leverage in (man-to-man)."
The best way to cover Hankerson, Fisher said, is by giving the cornerbacks some help or pressuring the quarterback. And even that might not be enough.
"You never stop guys like that, you just hope they don't kill you and you can contain them," Fisher said. "He is a complete player and we're definitely going to have our hands full."
Hankerson said he has practiced using his body to his advantage.
"I worked hard on using my body against the (defensive back) and catching the ball," he said. "Having a big frame against a smaller DB, you've got to be more of a physical guy to go up and get the ball."
Another thing he worked hard on was making sure he catches the football. One reason he didn't see more playing time his first two seasons was dropped passes. The past two summers, he has improved that, and other abilities, by working with former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper.
"We worked on little things - catching, looking the ball in, don't try to run before I catch the ball, and just focus and concentration," Hankerson said.
At first, Hankerson wasn't aware of Duper's NFL career (11 seasons, 511 receptions, 59 TDs, three Pro Bowls). After all, he was only 4 years old when Duper retired in 1992. But it didn't take long to realize he was being taught be someone special.
"The way he talked about the game, the way he was teaching me stuff, I could tell he had a successful career," Hankerson said. "And by seeing his name in the ring of honor in Dolphins stadium, that told me he was a pretty good player."
Officially, that place is known as Sun Life Stadium, and the Hurricanes haven't played there in more than a month. After opening the season at home against Florida A&M on Sept. 2, they played three road games spread over four weeks.
Getting back in front of a home crowd will be important; getting a win over the Seminoles will be even more important. Hankerson grew up following the rivalry - in fact, he was a Florida State fan through middle school, then switched allegiance to Miami.
"It's pretty intense on our campus and in our practice," Hankerson said. "Just because it's Florida State we can't change up what we do. We've just got to be Miami, keep preparing mentally and physically in practice and off the field, and listen to the coaches.
"It's hard not to get caught up. You have people talking, you have fans, you have teammates that you played with in high school. Everybody's talking and it's hard not to get caught up in that stuff. You've got to be mentally tough and not get caught up into it and let it affect you on game day."
From what Hankerson has seen on film, Florida State has shown a physical, athletic defense, particularly in the line and linebackers. The secondary is young but capable, playing mostly zone but man-to-man in some situations.
Playing before a national TV audience shouldn't bother the Hurricanes. They did it against Ohio State and Pittsburgh.
"I think people want to see us play (on TV) and we've just got to go out and play and not worry about being on that national stage," Hankerson said. "We've got to handle our business first - play tough, play hard.
"We can't make any mistakes. We have to finish drives, we have to run the ball hard, then it should go our way. We've got to come out on both sides of the ball and play hard-nosed football with no turnovers."
These games have been extremely close the last few years, so any number of things might turn out to be the deciding factor. Leonard Hankerson hopes he'll make the difference for his team. After all, it's his time now.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.