Scary Pair Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles give Kansas State a lethal backfield

August 31, 2003

If the Heisman had a doubles division, the duo of Kansas State
senior quarterback Ell Roberson and junior running back Darren
Sproles would surely be an early favorite. Although the
seventh-ranked Wildcats had some shaky moments in a 42-28 win
over California in the Black Coaches Association Classic last
Saturday, Roberson and Sproles showed how dangerous a talented
backfield tandem can be.

In front of a pro-Wildcats crowd at Kansas City's Arrowhead
Stadium, a Cal defense with just two returning starters was
forced to pick its purple poison: Roberson, a nimble runner and
increasingly poised passer, or Sproles, a 5'7" speed demon who
infiltrates weak defenses quicker than the latest Internet worm.
Both players proved equally dangerous out of the option, the
formation that Kansas State uses on more than 90% of its
offensive plays. By game's end the pair had run for 320 yards and
established a few personal bests. Roberson, who broke the school
record for quarterback rushing yards with 1,032 in 2002, had a
career-high three passing touchdowns, while Sproles, who set
eight Wildcats rushing records last year, carried the ball for a
career-high 175 yards.

Of the two, Roberson is the higher-profile player, an emotional
leader who overcame a difficult start to his career before
settling in as the starting quarterback early last season.
Sproles is more reserved. The shy social sciences major, who
battles a slight stutter, says he prefers to let his "play speak
for itself."

It speaks volumes. Since rushing for 2,485 yards and 49
touchdowns as a senior at Olathe North (Kans.) High in 2000,
Sproles has shown what a pint-sized player can accomplish. "The
little guy works his butt off," says Wildcats running backs coach
Michael Smith. "Just when you think he's rattled on a run, he'll
pop out of the pack." Whereas many small runners are partial to
the outside, Sproles often has his greatest success up the
middle, as when he slalomed through a handful of Bears to begin a
53-yard run on Kansas State's first play from scrimmage. Sproles
had two goals in the off-season: to beef up his upper body (he
now weighs 188 after adding 18 pounds) and improve his
pass-blocking.

After six straight seasons in which their defense finished sixth
or better nationally in total yards allowed per game, the
Wildcats may have to rely more on their offense this year. Coach
Bill Snyder, who is famously frugal with praise, admitted after
Saturday's win that he "would be hard-pressed" to name a better
backfield in his 15 years at Kansas State. In a separate postgame
press conference Cal coach Jeff Tedford said that Roberson and
Sproles "are maybe as good as anyone in the country."

Of course, pre-Labor Day proclamations don't carry much weight.
But if Roberson and Sproles keep up the tag-team approach, Big 12
opponents can expect to have their hands full.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) Sproles (43) and Roberson burned Cal for a combined 320 rushingyards.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)