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.