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In Second Year, Expectations Looming Large For Leonard Hankerson

By ZAC BOYER | zboyer@freelancestar.com | @ZacBoyer

ASHBURN – Though Leonard Hankerson has been working as one of the Washington Redskins’ top receivers through the first five days of training camp, he doesn’t yet want to consider the fact that he’s in line to be a starter.

Hankerson

That’s because he knows how quickly it all can be taken away.

Hankerson was an emerging star for the Redskins last season, a rookie who made his first appearance midway through the season. After three up-and-down games, Hankerson starred in a trip home to Miami, where he caught eight passes for 106 yards before sustaining a torn labrum in his hip – an injury that would end his season.

He hoped to rehabilitate the injury and return for offseason workouts, but by February, he wasn’t feeling quite right. It wasn’t until Friday that Hankerson was fully cleared to participate in all football-related activity – just another day for him – and he’s spent the past week trying to state his case to be the Redskins’ primary flanker.

“Right now, it’s an open competition between everybody,” Hankerson said. “You just got to come to practice every day, work hard in the meeting rooms and with the coaches, stuff like that, just to get better, compete, be consistent and get better each day.”

When the 6-foot-2, 211-pound receiver arrived last season as a third-round draft pick out of Miami, he was regarded as one of the Redskins’ top deep threats – a tall, speedy receiver with quick hands, one who set school records whose game was supposed to translate seamlessly to the pros.

Hankerson, though, had trouble picking up the playbook, and that disconnect left him on the sideline for the first five games. In the sixth, Oct. 23 at Carolina, he broke off a route early and the pass from John Beck went for an interception – a backbreaking mistake at a crucial point of the game and on his first professional play.

“This year, it’s totally different from last year,” Hankerson said. “I mean, I know what they expect now. I know I’ve been through last year. I know what coaches expect. I know what I need to do. I’m more confident in the playbook. I know it a whole lot more. I’m ready to just go out there, be more confident in what I do and just have fun.”

Aldrick Robinson, also a second-year receiver, has noticed a change in Hankerson. The two met and bonded last season as training camp roommates, and they were paired up again this season.

Hankerson, Robinson said, still has yet to get his conditioning back, but the tribulations of the year before challenged him to take a step forward this year.

“It definitely toughened him up,” Robinson said. “The game he had [against Miami], he had a lot of confidence. He toughened up, so he’s ready to go.”

Rather than trying to ease Hankerson back into the rotation, head coach Mike Shanahan made the decision to have him practice fully since training camp opened. Hankerson’s long-term health was a mild concern, Shanahan said, but because he had been running for several weeks before receiving full clearance, there was no hesitation in subjecting the receiver to a full workload.

“I mean, I feel good,” Hankerson said. “Why wouldn’t I? If I feel good, then put me out there and let me see how it goes, and then if I would have a setback or anything like that, take me off. But as of now, it’s all good.”

With prized free agent acquisition Pierre Garçon serving as the Redskins’ primary split end, Hankerson will have to hold off Josh Morgan, another incoming free agent, and Anthony Armstrong for playing time.

He doesn’t want to limit himself to merely knowing one of the receiving positions. He wants to be able to play wherever when asked – and after nine months of rehabilitation, there’s plenty of lost time to make up.

“When you’re in the NFL, there’s going to be competition every day,” Hankerson said. “When I was at Miami, I had just enough competition there. You just got to come to work every day, do what you have to do mentally and physically, go out there and have fun and compete with the guys.”

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