- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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There are 11 conferences in FBS football. Bishop Sankey would have been the leading rusher in five of them last year -- including the ACC, Big 12, Big East and SEC. (Plus the independents, for those keeping track at home).
But the Washington running back plays in the Pac-12, where 1,439 yards, 16 touchdowns and 110.7 yards per game gets you a fist bump and an honorable mention.
With two of the three 2012 Doak Walker finalists in the league -- Kenjon Barner and Johnathan Franklin -- along with the nation's leading rusher, Ka'Deem Carey -- it was easy for Sankey's impressive exploits to be overshadowed.
"That's why I wanted to come to the Pac-12. I feel like it's the best conference in the nation," Sankey said." You have tons of talented athletes out here on the West Coast. That's motivation for me to keep working hard and to keep improving."
Anyone who saw Sankey shred the Boise State defense for 205 yards in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas knows how special of a player Sankey can be. He also caught six balls for 74 yards and was named the game's MVP in a losing effort. It was the first time in the 21-year history of the bowl a player from the losing team had won the MVP. He was that good. And people noticed.
Anyone who watched him average 154.6 yards and score seven touchdowns over the last five games of 2012 knows how vital he is to Washington and its offense. Anyone who doesn't think Sankey is one of the premier running backs in the Pac-12 -- arguably the country -- just doesn't know football.
Boise State better have noticed. The Broncos are coming to Washington on Aug. 31 in a rematch of the bowl game.
"I feel like [the bowl game] is in the back of some of our minds as motivation," Sankey said. "But at the same time, we've also taken steps to move forward from last season and create a new identity for who we want to be for the upcoming season."
Sankey's rise came about under unfortunate circumstances. When Jesse Callier was lost for the year with a knee injury in the season opener against San Diego State, Sankey went from by-committee complement to every-down back.
At the time, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said, "We're going to find out more about Bishop Sankey in a hurry." What he found was a powerful, yet speedy back who could not only shoulder the load -- but emerge as one of the most durable backs in the league. Sankey's responsibilities increased throughout the season and by the second half he was averaging more than 25 carries per game. Only Carey and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor had more rushing attempts in 2012. And when the last down had been played, Sankey had gone for more than 100 yards in seven games and scored at least one touchdown in 10 of them.
He points to last year's victory over No. 8 Stanford as the "ah-ha" moment of his career. The Cardinal -- who finished fifth in the nation against the run -- only allowed three players to go for more than 100 yards against them last season. Franklin had 194 in the Pac-12 championship game, Sankey had 144 in the win and Carey went for 132. Sankey's 61-yard touchdown run against the Cardinal, coming on fourth-and-1, brought the Huskies back to life and swung the momentum back their way.
This year, he's looking to improve on, as he says, everything. His performance in the bowl game showed he can also be an effective receiver out of the backfield. But he wants to get better at pass- blocking, reading defenses and being even more explosive.
This spring he's also adjusted to the fact that there isn't a running back competition to replace Chris Polk. Sankey is the unquestioned starter. Though he's not taking that for granted.
"We have a very competitive running back group and I know everyone is capable of doing this job," he said. "I'm just trying to get better at everything and improve my game and help out the young guys.
"We have great athletes here. We have a great scheme and we have the potential to be very explosive. I can't wait for that first game. It's pretty exciting."
6hChantel Jennings and David Lombardi