- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

As the Miami Dolphins’ all-time leader in receiving yardage, No. 2 in receptions and No. 3 in receiving touchdowns, Mark Duper knows about playing the position. So when some of Leonard Hankerson’s uncles learned that their employer was a close friend of Duper‘s, they asked if the three-time Pro Bowler would tutor the young wideout, a rising junior at Miami.

“When I first started working with him, the talent, mentality and the ability to play football was there,” Duper said recently. “But an athlete needs guidance. He needed to learn how to practice properly. He needed to learn how to position his hands. He learned how to develop himself as a ballplayer.”

Hankerson, the Redskins’ third-round draft pick in April, was underwhelming during his first two years with the Hurricanes. But after working hard with Duper and youth coach Jack Doucett - his uncles’ employer - Hankerson departed among Miami’s top five receivers in career yardage, receptions and touchdowns.

Entering Friday’s preseason opener against visiting Pittsburgh, Hankerson yearns to prove he belongs among names such as Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Michael Irvin and now-teammate Santana Moss.

Eight receivers were drafted ahead of Hankerson. The Redskins selected two more after him, Niles Paul and Aldrick Robinson. Then came the addition of two veterans, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth. And just to be safe, the team also signed undrafted wideout Issac Anderson.

“That’s part of the NFL,” said Hankerson, who has dazzled at times during training camp. “Everyone wants to win and everyone’s going to do what it takes. As soon as you sign, they go out and try to find someone better.”

Hankerson’s determination to improve was a driving factor after he totaled 17 catches for 203 yards and three touchdowns - and developed a reputation for untimely drops - entering his junior season. Duper and Doucett put him through concentration drills and workouts that were posted to YouTube. Whenever Duper couldn’t make it, Hankerson insisted on continuing the program with Doucett. A breakout junior year convinced Hankerson to bypass the draft and redouble his effort.

“We had a goal of catching 10,000 balls over the summer before his senior year, and he did it,” said Doucett, a lifelong Redskins fan who hosted Hankerson’s draft party and adorned him in the Redskins’ cap and Joe Theismann jersey that appeared in photos.

“We worked even harder, sometimes twice a week,” Doucett said. “The Miami coaches invited me in to work out with him as much as we wanted. We set goals of 60 catches, 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns, and he surpassed them.”

To be precise, Hankerson capped his college career with 72 receptions, 1,156 yards and a single-season record 13 TDs. He finally was maximizing the athleticism and potential displayed at Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High, where another noted wideout - Cris Carter - was his position coach.

“When I first got to college, I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” said Hankerson, explaining his slow start. “It was tough going up and competing against everyone. I wasn’t really staying after practice for extra work. I had the ability, but I had to catch a lot of extra balls.”

Hankerson typically stays on the field with others after practice to work with Redskins receivers coach Keenan McCardell. He used to hang around after the Redskins’ voluntary training sessions during the lockout. Duper said Hankerson’s work ethic is the receiver’s most-impressive trait, adding that there’s nothing wrong with his rather large mitts.

“He has the opportunity to lock onto a football if his hands are positioned properly,” Duper said. “He was taught all those things in our two years and did a great job. Leonard doesn’t have bad hands; his hands are great.”

Nonetheless, several balls that Hankerson should’ve caught have hit the ground in practice. The perception that he’s unreliable, in addition to his lack of blazing speed, helped him fall to the ninth receiver drafted. But McCardell said Hankerson’s physical attributes - 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds with long arms - will help him overpower cornerbacks and overcome perceived weaknesses.

“He’s a big target and has a big catch radius,” McCardell said. “Sometimes balls maybe are not on target, but with his big catch radius he’s on target.”

As far as Duper is concerned, there’s no question where his former pupil is headed: “I think Leonard Hankerson was a steal in the third round,” Duper said. “I think he’s going to be a star in the NFL and do great things in the NFL.”

If not, the reason won’t be lack of effort.