Head 2 Head: Darren Sproles vs. MiQuale Lewis

MiQuale Lewis/Darren Sproles

The success that San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles has had in the NFL is surprising to some, especially since he's just 5-foot-6. Ball State RB MiQuale Lewis is also 5-foot-6 and has a similar skill set to Sproles. Scout.com's Chris Steuber compares the two little big men inside.


Sproles was a productive, but small runner at Kansas State and many doubted he would become a featured back in the NFL...
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Entering the NFL:
Height: 5-6
Weight: 187
Combine 40-time: 4.47
Pro Day 40-time: DNR
Bench Press (225 Lb.): 23 reps

Selecting a player in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft is never a sure thing; realistically, there's no such thing as a sure thing in the draft. But, even though you select a player in the middle rounds, it doesn't mean that player wasn't productive at the collegiate level. In most cases, a player selected in the fourth or fifth round had an outstanding college career, but he either lacked the size, speed, instinct or intelligence to be a high round pick.

Looking back at the 2005 NFL Draft, one player who literally slipped through the cracks was Kansas State's ultra productive, but vertically challenged running back Darren Sproles. He is an electrifying, elusive runner who dominated the Big-12 for three of the four years he spent with the Wildcats. This includes his spectacular 2003 campaign where he led Kansas State to its first Big-12 Championship while carrying the ball 306 times for 1,986 yards (6.5 YPC) and 16 touchdowns. He also finished fifth in the Heisman voting in '03.

Despite his career accolades at Kansas State, which included 4,979 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns, the 5-foot-6, 187-pound Sproles wouldn't receive the respect he deserved on draft day. There wasn't a team in the NFL that was going to select Sproles on Day One of the draft. But it didn't take long on Day Two for a team to call his name.

The Chargers selected Sproles with the 130th pick overall in the fourth round; a fourth round that also produced two of the league's premier RBs, Marion Barber (Dallas Cowboys) and Brandon Jacobs (New York Giants).

It took Sproles sometime to develop and carve out a role for himself in the Chargers offense. With LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime and dominating the ball, there weren't many opportunities for Sproles early on in his career to carry the ball. So, turning his attention to special teams and becoming the one of the best return men in the league was his avenue to show his elusiveness and game breaking ability.

But when you lack size in a league full of massive men who look to inflict pain, injuries will occur, and Sproles suffered a broken ankle during his second season (2006) in the league, in the first preseason game of the season on a punt return, which cost him the entire year.

The ensuing season, Sproles returned healthy and displayed his toughness and desire to succeed in the league. He became one of the league's dynamic return specialists and also demonstrated that he was a capable backup to Tomlinson. He was named a second alternative for the Pro Bowl and received the Ed Block Courage Award for playing the entire '07 season after returning from his ankle injury.

In 2008, Sproles proved the doubters wrong and continued to show his durability playing in every game and shining on offense and special teams. His finest moment of the season came in the playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts where he replaced an injured Tomlinson and finished with 328 all-purpose yards (105 rushing, 45 receiving and 178 returning) and two touchdowns.

For his efforts, Sproles was tagged as the Chargers franchise player this offseason, which guarantees him $6.6 million this season.

"I still have to go out there and prove myself again," Sproles told Scout.com. "It's nice to be rewarded like that, but like I said, I have to continue to prove myself. That's the way this league is."

Especially for the shortest player in the NFL.


   


... Lewis will face the same criticism Sproles faced when his game is dissected leading up to the 2010 NFL Draft.
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Entering the NFL:
Height: 5-6
Weight: 185
Projected 40-time: 4.44
Pro Day 40-time: N/A
Bench Press (225 Lb.): N/A

When you compare a college player to a professional athlete, there are many factors that go into the comparison, but sometimes it just takes that one ingredient to make an ordinary blend into a masterful concoction.

The one ingredient in this case is obviously the height similarity between Sproles and Ball State running back MiQuale Lewis. But what makes Lewis a credible replica of Sproles is the season he put together in '08.

After missing 15 games in his first two seasons with the Cardinals, Lewis bounced back and exploded on the scene as a junior and rushed for 1,736 yards on 322 carries and scored 22 touchdowns. Lewis was also a dangerous weapon out of the backfield and gave quarterback Nate Davis (drafted by the Niners) another option to utilize.

"I knew I could be a productive back in college, but the numbers I had last year; I never thought that would happen," Lewis told Scout.com in an exclusive interview.

"Coming out of high school people were saying that I was too short to play Division I football. And then getting hurt two years in a row; that proved them right. But last year, my main focus was to stay healthy and prove to all the doubters that I can play the game of football.”

Thanks in large to Lewis, Ball State finished last year with a 12 - 2 record, and a major reason for their success was because of Lewis' ascension.

Prior to his breakout '08 season, Lewis had a difficult time staying on the field. As a true freshman, Lewis played in the first six games of the season before suffering a season ending shoulder injury. In limited action, he rushed for 280 yards on 48 carries and one touchdown.

The following year, it was more of the same for Lewis, but in a different capacity, as he began the year as the starter. He got off to a slow start in the first two games of the year, but he found his groove in the next two contests rushing for 283 yards on 46 carries and a touchdown. Unfortunately, as he started to get on a roll, Lewis went down with a season-ending injury in the Cardinals fourth game of the season against Nebraska.

“The two injuries I had were freak accidents," Lewis explained. "I fell and landed on my shoulder, which broke my collarbone (as a freshman), and then I tore my ACL on a non-contact play (against Nebraska). When I tore my ACL, it happened in the fourth quarter; I was making a cut on my right leg and my knee was straight, but it wasn’t bent and I just heard a pop – I fell right to the ground."

But after hitting the ground running in 2008, Lewis looks to continue to show that he's durable enough to withstand the punishment he faces each week this season and in the future as a potential NFL draft pick.

Lewis understands that the NFL doesn't put a high priority on drafting short running backs too high in the draft and points to Maurice Jones-Drew (2nd Round), Michael Turner (5th Round) and Sproles (4th Round) as primary examples. But he also realizes that if he works on his versatility and can contribute as a return man, his stock becomes more valuable.

"I’m doing a little bit of that this year to show NFL scouts that I can return," Lewis said. "It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while, but in recent years we’ve had a lot of playmakers on our team who could do it. But this year I asked Coach if it was something I could do, and he didn’t have a problem with that."


CONCLUSION


Lewis (left) and Sproles (right) have a similar running style and skill set.
Getty Images

As I mentioned, the comparison between Sproles and Lewis is obvious because of their similar physique, but their running style and ability to make defenders miss is also comparable. Whether it’s running the ball between the tackles, on the edge or catching the ball out of the backfield, they have the unique talent to use their elusiveness and break open a game whenever they have the ball in their hands.

Despite their stature, Sproles and Lewis are solidly built and have shown toughness, and at certain points in their careers have proven to be durable. The misconception of these runners is that they’re scat backs who like to flash inside and eventually bounce everything out to the perimeter. It’s a fact that you don’t want to give them 20 – 25 carries a game, but in a situational role - where they receive 10 – 12 carries and five to six passes a game – they’re extremely effective and in many ways present a much tougher challenge to the opposition than the featured back.

Lewis is a versatile, undersized runner who brings a complete game to the field; he has the ability to beat you on the ground, through the air and on special teams. He’s built low to the ground, runs with a forward lean and uses his deceptive strength to run efficiently between the tackles. He uses his quickness to his advantage to beat the opposition on the edge and possesses outstanding cut back ability to break free in the open field. He’s a patient runner that allows his blockers to set up in front of him, and he uses his quick feet to excel through the hole. He’s an average blocker who demonstrates the awareness to pick up blitzes. He also has the intangibles to be a quality return specialist, but limit his touches in a game as durability is a concern.

 


A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. For fans who have a Facebook account, follow Steuber by clicking here. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: csteuber@scout.com.


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