This may sound preposterous, but the diminutive halfback from Kansas State who made everyone's preseason Heisman top five won't win the award with performances like his 221-yard rushing effort last Saturday. Like the rest of the team, Sproles was effective enough in the 12th-ranked Wildcats' 27-13 victory against Division I-AA Western Kentucky, but he wasn't spectacular. Heisman voters like spectacular. Although Sproles broke loose for a nifty 32-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, his other 41 carries produced some healthy chunks of yardage but none of the highlight-tape scampers that vault a running back to the top of a Heisman ballot--particularly in a year when the other leading candidates include glamour quarterbacks from high-profile schools, like Matt Leinart of Southern Cal and last year's winner, Jason White of Oklahoma.
Sproles, a senior, had plenty of memorable runs last year, when he rushed for 1,986 yards and finished fifth in the Heisman vote, and all of them can be viewed at darrensproles43.com, the website set up by the Kansas State sports information department to boost his Heisman chances. But last season defenses had to split their focus between Sproles and quarterback Ell Roberson, an elusive runner himself. With Roberson gone, Sproles, who is 5'7", 180 pounds if you believe the media guide and more like 5'6", 170 if you believe your own eyes, is clearly Kansas State's most dangerous weapon. That's why Western Kentucky's defense tracked him almost from the moment he left his dorm room. They hemmed in Sproles reasonably well with aggressive but disciplined pursuit, making sure there were second and third tacklers in position if the first one missed--which often happens when Sproles is carrying the ball. "He was getting four or five yards a crack for most of the game, but he wasn't breaking that 20- or 30-yarder," said Western Kentucky coach David Elson. "Part of the strategy against this team has to be to try to contain Sproles as best you can and force someone else to make plays."
If the Hilltoppers could force Sproles to grind for most of his yardage, there's no telling how stingy Big 12 rivals like Oklahoma and Nebraska could be. "By the time we get to teams like that, we'll be better," Sproles said. "I'm not worried about it." Nor is he particularly concerned about awards, Heisman or otherwise. A man of few words--"I'd rather run than talk," he says-- Sproles all but yawns when he discusses his Heisman chances. "It means nothing," he says. "Nothing. As long as we win games I'm fine. The Heisman really doesn't matter much to me."
Still, a little extra public relations boost couldn't hurt, because opposing defenses aren't the only obstacles in Sproles's path. He's running against the tide of recent history as well. While running backs, including Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker, won the award 11 times in a row from 1973 through '83, only four have taken home the trophy in the last 15 years, none since Wisconsin's Ron Dayne in 1999. Increased emphasis on the passing game, with its spread formations and three or more wideouts, has reduced the workload, and achievements, of the halfback.
Also, more teams are rotating their backs. In Minnesota's blowout win over Toledo last Saturday, the Gophers had four running backs with at least 14 carries, including 1,000-yard rushers Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney, either of whom might be Heisman material if he were in a featured role. Similarly, USC has two game-breakers in Reggie Bush and LenDale White, but because they share time, Leinart is the Trojans' Heisman candidate.
Sproles, however, will get more touches as the mainstay of the Wildcats attack, and he returns punts and kickoffs as well. The only running back rotation at Kansas State occurs when he spins to elude a tackler. Coach Bill Snyder called Sproles's number 42 times on Saturday, yet the little back still looked fresh in the fourth quarter, when the Western Kentucky defense was worn down. "If you give it to a player like Darren enough times, eventually he's going to do something special," said Kansas State backup quarterback Allen Webb.
That reasoning could apply to the Heisman race as well. Sproles might not be the front-runner for the award at the moment, but it wouldn't be the first time he's broken out of the pack and gone all the way. -- Phil Taylor