NASHVILLE, Tenn. –The transition from the college game to the NFL is always a process and Titans rookie running back Bishop Sankey is learning with every rep he takes. Not only are defenses much faster, but the offensive playbook is far more complicated.
"It's an entirely new game," said Sankey. "I'm facing a new level of defense and in a totally new environment. You have to take it one play at a time and focus on the task at hand. If you are worried about other things then you won't be able to execute to the best of your ability."
Sankey has already seen plenty of success. On top of breaking big runs in practice, the rookie back has 68 yards on 19 carries (3.6 yard avg.) through the Titans' two preseason games. That doesn't count his three catches for 38 yards and one touchdown.
Now he's looking to improve his handoff exchange from the quarterback. Sankey lost a fumble last week in New Orleans and has seen a couple get away from him during training camp. It's an issue Titans running backs coach Sylvester Croom attributes to Sankey's footwork, which has to adjust to additional blocking schemes at the NFL level.
"Our footwork is tied into the blocking schemes, and when the blocking schemes change, the footwork changes," said Croom. "Bishop was used to basically one or two blocking schemes in college and we've got anywhere from 12 to 20 – so our footwork has to adjust."
The word 'tracks' is what Sankey used to describe the learning curve – meaning the route from where he lines up pre-snap to which hole the running play is designed to attack. There is no shortage of intricacies in head coach Ken Whisenhunt's offense.
"We have a lot more tracks in this offense as opposed to at Washington," explained Sankey. "We probably only had two or three in college, but there is a lot more flexibility in this offense. It's just up to me to pay attention to the details and try to perfect each track. Once I get the aiming point right with the quarterbacks I'll be just fine."
Sankey missed a good portion of the Titans organized team activities due to Washington's quarter system and has worked hard to play catch up – knowing exactly what aspects of his game need improvement.
"I just need to be patient, keep the pocket open, and stay discipline to my track regardless of how it's looking in front of me," said Sankey. "I also need to press the offensive line before I make any cuts in the backfield. It's just little detail stuff and once I get those cleaned up everything is going to get a lot better."
Croom mentioned that adjusting to a complex blocking scheme is a common difficulty for rookies in the NFL.
"So much of what he's used to is getting the ball and running the football. Now it has to tie in with the blocking scheme," Croom said. "You have to anticipate where the holes are going to be because when they open you have to be there. The footwork also influences the linebackers on defense, which means he helps set up blocks for the offensive line."
It's not just the offensive line that Sankey has to consider. The biggest part of his job, and everyone else on offense, is to make things easy on the quarterback he's standing next to. It's vital for running backs to get in the right position where their QB is expecting them to be.
Sankey didn't have a fumbling problem in college and no one seems concerned that it will be an issue going forward. It's just a part of the learning curve.
"That's been the problem for him," said Croom. "He's using the same footwork on all the running plays. It's been different. It's been a learning experience for him and it's a discipline about doing it over and over again. He's learning how important it is."
Every Sankey mistake is sure to be followed with tough love from Croom, but the Titans running backs coach left nothing to question about the confidence he has in his rookie.
Croom has spent two decades as an NFL coach and has been around some of the league's greatest backs – from Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson to Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson.
He hopes that Bishop Sankey will be the next prominent name on that list.
"Bishop has everything we thought about him during our evaluation process prior to the draft. He has that and more," Croom explained. "We think he's going to make a big contribution to this football team because he works at it. He's a talented individual, he works really hard and he's intelligent. When you put those things together and you keep showing up, then good things will happen."
As for Sankey, his focus has turned to the Atlanta Falcons and his next chance to improve.
"I'm feeling good," said Sankey. "I'm just trying to get better each game. We only have two more [preseason games] so I'm trying to maximize each opportunity I get on the field."