The Hornets have themselves one of the most physically intimidating enforcers in the league roaming in the middle of their defense. The question entering the 2015 season is can they get him any help?
Darnell Sankey plays the role of battering ram middle linebacker as well as anyone in the league. The Sacramento State senior goes 6-foot-3, 260 pounds and he plays with a hyperactive ferocity that’s impossible to miss on Saturdays in the fall. He can run sideline to sideline as well as any linebacker in the Big Sky and his love of contact is second to none if you ask those who are around him day in and day out.
“He absolutely loves it,” Sac State second-year head coach Jody Sears said at the Big Sky Kickoff media conference in Park City in July. “He lives for hitting people. His instincts are off the charts for this level. It’s nice to have a guy who makes you strong in the middle.”
Last season, Sankey earned second-team All-Big Sky honors despite missing the last month of the season with a torn MCL. He notched 100 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in nine games of action. His 11.7 tackles per game ranked third in the Big Sky.
Sankey’s performance last season is creating hype as he enters his final campaign in California’s capital. Sankey was a preseason All-Big Sky selection. He’s one of 20 players from around the Football Championship Subdivision who’s on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list. He’s getting a decent amount of NFL attention. And he knows he still has plenty to prove.
“My mentality is the same thing even if I wasn’t getting recognized,” Sankey said. “I just want to go out there and play hard every day. I want to lead the team and lead us to a championship. It’s great to have accolades and awards. It’s a blessing for sure. But at the same time, you can’t let it get to your head too much. You have to stay humble and keep working.”
Despite having the physically formidable converted defensive end roaming the middle of their defense, the Hornets struggled to hold teams last fall. Behind the nation’s leader in total offense in Garrett Safron and All-America wide receiver DeAndre Carter, Sac averaged 38.2 points per game. Safron threw for nearly 3,500 yards and 34 touchdowns, including 99 passes to Carter for 1,321 yards and 17 scores. The slick quarterback also rushed for 751 yards and four scores as Sac found itself in shootouts on most weekends.
It took 48 points to beat Portland State (48-41), 41 to beat UC Davis (41-30) and 43 to beat Northern Colorado (43-38). Sac scored 56 and still lost to Montana State (59-56) at home. Sac ended up giving up 36.1 points per game, 109th in the country, to finish 7-5.
“We weren’t good enough on defense last year,” Sears said. “It was our weakness. You have one of the best linebackers in the nation and granted he missed three or four games, but there is no excuse. We have to be better on defense. Having a guy who’s the center of your defense is comforting but we have to help him out because that doesn’t make plays. We have to make all the components around him play up to his standard.”
Sac State was done in by big plays over and over last season. The narrow loss to Montana State was a prime example. In the first quarter, MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run. Later in the quarter, he hit a streaking Justin Paige for a 48-yard score. In the second half, Prukop scored on a 49-yard run and hit Jayshawn Gates for a 45-yard touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Prukop hit Gunnar Brekke on a wheel route down the Sac sideline for a 59-yard touchdown.
“With the big plays, it’s mainly establishing a culture of trust,” Sankey said. “I have to be able to look at my teammates and know he has this gap at this time. I can’t second guess it. As soon as you second guess, you start doing things that aren’t your responsibility and then the running back hits the gap and he’s gone.”
The big plays hindered the big picture, but Sankey still has plenty of respect around the league.
“He’s the real deal. That man can do whatever he wants,” MSU junior guard J.P. Flynn, a preseason All-America, said last season. “He can come and lay a shoulder underneath your chin strap. He can also shuck you real quick, toss you on the ground. Every single play, you have to get a hat on a hat and keep your feet not stopping because the minute you stop, the minute he’s gone.”
Sankey said the Hornets spent most of the off-season going back to fundamentals. He said spring drills were filled with tackling drills in the open field in an effort to remedy their biggest ailment.
“I had some tackles but I left a lot of tackles out there as well,” Sankey said. “We need to be fundamentally sound tackling.”
Throughout spring, Sankey tested out his injured knee. He wore a brace for most drills before ditching it for the last few weeks. He said he feels fully confident in his health.
Sears spent the spring emphasizing to his star his “job description”. Sears said more than intimidation or production, he needs Sankey to be a leader to everyone in the Hornets’ program. The veteran coach knows his captain has it within him.
“He’s one of our leaders,” Sears said. “He is a tremendously selfless person, a very humble guy but he has an extreme passion for the game of football. He plays like it. He’s very instinctive. In the 18 months I’ve known Darnell, his leadership qualities have been tremendous in terms of helping guys in the locker room and being that example and being that encourager and serving his teammates.”Sankey has NFL aspirations. He’s currently the 45th-ranked inside linebacker on NFLDraftScout.com. The last time he max lifted, he squatted more than 600 pounds. His production and his frame should get him a look at the next level. But he has bigger goals in mind first.
“Hopefully one day, I will play in the NFL,” Sankey said. “I want to be the best linebacker I can be and that there is. But this year comes first. We are getting overlooked but we are definitely a team to be reckoned with. We lost some good players but we are definitely looking to peak and not go 7-5 but go 11-0 this next year. We are going to be a force out there.”
Photos by Sac State athletics. Head shot by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.