Who's the man on the Wildcats to replace the great Darren Sproles? Well, first no one will replace a record setting back like Sproles, but there are some very talented candidates who are capable of contributing immediately.
Unfortunately it looks as if spring practices have yet to bear out a front runner to replace Darren and cement anyone as a clear starter. As is stands, there are a list of names for the starting running back position. And depending on how Coach Snyder wishes to utilize the running game this year, there are different running styles available for the staff to choose from.
There is a long history in the Bill Snyder era of great running backs that could do it all, block, receive, run. Names like J.J. Smith, Josh Scobey, Eric Hickson have dotted the starting backfields for the Cats and have provided the steady if not spectacular play that has been necessary in the success of the Wildcats. And although these players were able to get the job done on the ground and provide the offensive power in the running game the Cats desire, the name Darren Sproles will not soon be forgotten.
For many Cat fans, whomever eventually takes the reins at the RB position will draw comparisons to Sproles. Fair or not, we have all to a degree become spoiled watching the seemingly effortless gains that Darren has made again and again on the field. There is no one on campus who can provide the game busting ability that Darren brought to the table. One option might well be a running game by committee.
At a weekly spring football conference, Coach Bill Snyder addressed if any of the backs have stepped and became the leading candidate?
"It goes back and forth, day to day so I'm hesitant to say there's a clear cut distinction said Snyder. Clayton, Alsup and Fisher along with Donnie Anders are all in the mix. Yesterday we had a briefer scrimmage and our offense had a much better day. Clayton was a part of that and maybe that gave him a one day edge, but overall the position is a logjam."
The schedule sets nicely for the Wildcats to have the luxury of playing different combinations at the position in order to find a true cut starter. Could a running back by committee be in order or will Kansas State stick with one back for the bulk of the carries? Replacing the yards, touchdowns and leadership that the team became so accustomed to with Darren Sproles will put a lot of day to day pressure on who ever steps forward into the position and place pressure on the coaching staff to replace the production Sproles brought to the offense.
"Ultimately, it's up to the coaches, said junior running back Thomas Clayton. If they feel like that is the best option for us, then they are going to use it. I think, personally, I've improved on catching the ball. We've done that a heck of a lot. I think I have done well in that category. I've been catching the ball out in the flat, as well as moving out to receiver in some positions. They have been moving us out there in certain formations. I think I've also done well at pass protection. Pass protection is a key at the running back position. I feel more comfortable back there."
Clayton, comes to the table with both power and speed. He only carried the ball 15 times in 2005 for 71 yards and although limited, Clayton at least will have something to draw upon in experience. Fifteen carries is not enough carries to illustrate Claytons' true abilities at the position but it also keeps fan expectations of the junior running back manageable. Clayton believes he can bring not only solid play, but passion and enthusiasm to the team.
"Day in day-out I can give intensity, said junior Thomas Clayton. I can be that guy that can get everyone excited, and also get excited and play well myself."
Overall, in the spring drills of all the positions it seems Coach Snyder is most pleased with the competitive spirit, and intensity shown by the running backs as the coaching staff waits for one of them to step up.
"It's remained very competitive said Snyder, I've seen some very positive things from virtually all of them. I think that's one of those spots where they have performed in an acceptable fashion, but no one has just jumped out there and made some great plays and said 'I'm the guy.' I'm hoping, like I am with many other positions, that that takes place."
Last season saw an offensive line that never seemed to have the unit integrity or play together as a unit that is the calling card of a great O-Line. For the running game to be effective, improved play along the line is paramount – and that's no big secret. There can't be just a little improvement, but some drastically improved play game in and game out. Cohesion is usually a buzz word thrown out to describe O-Line play and in this case there must be evidence on a game by game basis that this unit is coming together and playing together.
Many times last year there simply were not holes for Darren to run through and there currently is no one that has stepped up to clearly take the role as a starter. Past that, there seemingly is no one with the experience and abilities that Darren brought to the table either. To date, The O-line has not yet shown the staff the cohesion they seek but to that end, they have made strides in that area throughout Spring drills. The offensive line is currently a work in progress and will take time to learn to play together as one unit. Youth and replacing experienced starters are concerns at this point.
"I think the thing that's holding us back is that there are four freshmen that don't totally understand the offense, said Senior offensive lineman Jeromey Clary . If you don't fully understand what you're doing, you are kind of hesitant to ask. Your instincts aren't as sharp until you learn the offense and get that down. I think once they get that down they are talented enough athletes that we will be at the caliber of five seniors."
The running back battle will be one of the most interesting and competitive in camp this season. Who will step up and not only contribute on the field but take a leadership roll? Losing Darren takes a large amount of production for the Wildcat offense off the table- but the cupboard is far from bare.
The Spring game showed glimpses of the future and there will be those players who will be relegated to support positions rather then starter and to my mind there is not any one player thus far who has stepped up and clearly taken over the spot. Clayton looks at this point to be the best bet in terms of taking over at running back but given some time, some of the younger players will adjust and challenge. Again, no one will replace Darren in the backfield, but the pieces are in place for the Cats to put together the power running game that Coach Snyder covets.
With the quarterback position still a little shaky with the status of Dylan Meier in question, the running game must come alive in order to provide balance. This offense must have the ability to both run and pass to avoid defenses loading up to force the Cats into becoming one-dimensional. In the end, the Spring game only provide bits and pieces of the solution at the position. But make no bones, the running back position could be The position that determines the success of this year's Kansas State football team.
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