<strong>July 28, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2005/07/28/sports/professional/chargers/20_48_357_27_05.txt">North County Times</a>
SAN DIEGO ---- On the practice fields at the Chargers' training complex, rookie running back Darren Sproles seems to do anything but stand out. Not only is the fourth-round selection out of Kansas State soft-spoken and unassuming, at 5-foot-6 he's also the shortest player on the roster by 3 inches.
Don't be fooled by his low profile.
The Chargers see quite a bit of talent and potential contained in Sproles' muscular, yet diminutive frame.
"We all know that he's not real tall, but he's not small either, because he's very well put together," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "And he's got a suddenness about his movement that not many people in this league (have)."
Second-year center Nick Hardwick seems equally impressed.
"Obviously, D. Sproles is a pretty special little kid," he said.
Sproles' speed (4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash according to draft reports) and agility were on display Wednesday as he competed in drills both out of the backfield and returning punts. He showed the quick feet and ability to hit the hole fast that helped him gain a school-record 4,979 rushing yards as a three-year starter with the Wildcats.
Yet here in the NFL, Sproles is starting from scratch.
"It's like being a freshman," he said. "It's a stage you go through. You've got to prove yourself."
Playing behind Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson, it seems Sproles' best shot to prove himself this season will be on special teams, where he is expected to bring his explosiveness to kickoff and punt returns.
The Chargers want last season's top punt returner, Eric Parker, to play exclusively at wide receiver this season to avoid injury. Tim Dwight, the team's primary kick returner in 2004 was released in the offseason. The Chargers were also hot on the trail of Falcons returner Allen Rossum, who eventually re-signed with Atlanta.
Sproles returned kicks for three years at Kansas State and brought back punts as a sophomore and junior.
But is he a lock for the job here?
"I think it's a bit premature, but I expect him to be on the roster," Schottenheimer said, smiling.
The coach has also indicated Sproles will get some time as a third-down back and a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He said he and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have discussed putting both Sproles and Tomlinson in the same backfield on certain plays.
"That ought to pose some interesting issues for the opposition," Schottenheimer said.
Hardwick also likes the possibility of having Sproles around as another offensive weapon. He said Sproles has few peers when it comes to his cutting ability and knack for accelerating to top speed without a running start.
And there's more than just athleticism.
"He's got good patience," Hardwick said. "I don't think most young guys have good patience. He'll sit there and wait for his chance ... and boom."
The possibility of being a part-time offensive contributor sounds fine to Sproles, who doesn't seem to have brought a featured-back ego with him from Manhattan, Kan.
"I just want to be on the field," Sproles said, "so it really doesn't matter to me."
Maybe it's the fact that people have constantly doubted him in the past that keeps him grounded.
Sproles admits that he has always had to prove himself because of his size.
But Hardwick, for one, doesn't buy the knock.
"I don't think much of size," he said. "I'm an undersized guy for my spot, too. So you can talk about size, but it's not an issue. He's a good player, and he proved it in college."
Said Sproles: "I feel if I was 6-foot-whatever, I wouldn't have all that shiftiness. It might be bad on my knees.
"But it's worked out for me right now ---- I've been blessed."