Hankerson hustles to the top of his game

Senior wide receiver Leonard Hankerson knows what hard work is all about. Success didn’t come easy for him.

Hankerson’s father died two weeks before Hankerson was born. His uncle raised him.

Hankerson’s uncle worked for popcornremoval.com, a furnishing industry that replaces popcorn from ceilings with knockdown texture. Hankerson grew up around the store and ran errands for owners Jack and Nick Doucette in between playing football and doing homework.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 205 pounder graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, the same high school that produced former Cane great and hall of famer Michael Irvin.

But Hankerson wasn’t a household name coming out of high school. He grew up idolizing Peter Warrick, former Florida State star and his favorite team was the Noles. But head coach Randy Shannon recruited him hard and Hankerson ultimately chose the U.

Hankerson struggled finding his niche in the receiving core his first two years. After two years he had played with four different quarterbacks, Kirby Freeman, Kyle Wright, Robert Marve and Jacory Harris. He dropped numerous balls, and his routes were not crisp. His confidence bottomed out.

After his sophomore year, he needed a mentor in the worst way possible. He turned to former Miami Dolphin great Mark Duper, who is the Phins’ all-time leading receiver.

“Growing up I was neighbors with Mark and we had recently asked him to do some promotions for the company,” Jack Doucette said. “I thought, ‘You know what, Leonard has too much talent to not be performing well, why doesn’t he have a chat with Mark.’”

And the relationship began. The first time Duper met Hankerson, Duper handed the desperate wide receiver a highlight film of Duper’s 64 touchdowns in the NFL. Hankerson’s eyes lit up.

“Hank didn’t know me from Adam, but I could tell all he needed was a confidence boost,” Duper said. “Hank is one of those players who works hard when someone is trying to help him.”

The summer heading into Hankerson’s junior year he worked one on one with Duper three times a week in the summer. They caught 1,200 footballs balls a week together. Duper taught Hankerson how to analyze film and read defensive backs’ hips in order to maximize his routes.

“We didn’t always use a football, we worked a lot with tennis balls actually,” Duper said. “We did the ‘Reaction Drill’ which teaches repetition and hand-eye coordination.”

During the “Reaction Drill,” Duper threw two tennis balls simultaneously and Hankerson would have to catch one with his right hand and one with his left hand.

“We have a really good relationship,” Hankerson said. “I’ve been working with [Duper] for the past couple of years. Just trying to work as hard as I can and get better every day.”

Hankerson was also fueled by criticism of the fans and media. When he would play video games online, he would see number 85 was sixth on the depth chart and would read message boards ripping him to shreds.

Hankerson used the newfound techniques and bulletin board material his junior year and became a household name, for a good reason.

“Of course I knew I could be this good,” Hankerson said. “I just had to work hard, keep my focus up and keep preparing.”

He led the Canes in touchdown receptions and receiving yards last year.

After Miami’s 20-14 loss to Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, Hankerson had a big decision to make. Should he forgo his senior season and bolt to the NFL or try and finish something special at UM with his teammates?

Hankerson has two children at home which made the decision tougher, but he ultimately decided to stay.

He is quarterback Jacory Harris’ favorite target, and already has six touchdowns this year, matching his total from all of last year. He is the reigning ACC Player of the Week after his dominant performance against Clemson.

“He’s come a long way and continues to work,” Shannon said. “Anytime you have a young man that works like he does, never takes anything for granted and really appreciates anything he has in life, that really makes you feel good about him.”

Justin Antweil may be contacted at jantweil@themiamihurricane.com.