It was April 2000, and freshman quarterback Ell Roberson, taking his first snap in his first spring game at Kansas State, dropped back and spied a gap in the line. Sidestepping a couple of defenders and juking a few more, Roberson raced through the hole and went 73 yards for a touchdown. The spectacular display of speed and agility left onlookers breathless, but Wildcats coach Bill Snyder recalls the play for another reason: He believes it was the worst thing to happen to Roberson on a football field. "After that play Ell believed he could get by on natural talent alone, so he didn't appreciate practice," says Snyder. "That set him back. He's now become a real student of the game. That's why he played the way he did last year."
Over the final four games of 2002 Roberson was as productive as any quarterback in the nation. In leading the Wildcats to wins over Big 12 rivals Iowa State, Nebraska and Missouri and a victory in the Holiday Bowl over Arizona State, Roberson averaged 178.3 yards passing and 105.8 yards rushing per game. Just as impressive, he rarely misread defenses, which cut down on his bad throws, and he made few bad moves in the open field—the kinds of mistakes that he'd made with such regularity that he failed to win the starting role before last season. "When I wasn't the starter I became more focused," says Roberson, who regained the top job after coming off the bench to lead the Wildcats to a 27-20 win over USC on Sept. 21. "I now pay more attention to details."
If he continues to improve in his senior year, Kansas State should cruise to the Big 12 North title. The Wildcats have five starters returning from a blitzkrieg D that held opponents to 11.8 points per game, best in the nation. The offense will feature 5'7", 170-pound junior back Darren Sproles, who last year ran for 1,465 yards, scored 17 touchdowns and had more than one opposing coach comparing him with Barry Sanders.
This summer about a dozen former Wildcats who are now in the pros phoned Roberson. The conversations inevitably veered to the topic of his maturity. "Those guys reminded me to always keep my head on straight," says Roberson. "Now it's my responsibility to make those guys proud of Kansas State football." That's a job Roberson's now ready for.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]