Big 12 Previews - Kansas St., Okie St., Iowa St.

<b>KSU'S SPROLES MAY NUDGE WHITE FOR HEISMAN</b><p> Kansas State RB Darren Sproles speaks softly and carries a big void in his heart. Sproles enters his senior season as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate after finishing fifth in last year's voting, but he is less than three months removed from his mother's untimely death. Annette Sproles was just 41 when she died of cancer last April. Now, Darren has dedicated the new season to her memory following his season-to-remember in 2003. <p>

"My mom and I were real close," he said. "When it first happened, I was more mad than hurt. But time has passed and it got easier."

During what would otherwise be a private season in one's life, Sproles now finds himself in the center of attention. KSU's athletic department launched a new web site Tuesday in an effort to promote Sproles' accomplishments and jumpstart his Heisman campaign. (Head coach Bill Snyder said the intent was to list video clips of just his "most breath-taking plays" but that athletic officials could scarcely narrow the list to 200 plays). What's more, Sproles was recently named the Big 12's preseason Offensive Player of the Year, as league media bypassed OU's returning Heisman winning QB Jason White. As such, Sproles has been the most sought-after athlete since the Big 12 Football Media Days began in Kansas City on Tuesday.

Thing is, Sproles is extremely soft-spoken and won't say two words if one will do.

What would winning the Heisman mean to you, Darren? "Nothing." How did you feel when Kansas State officials told you that your most breathtaking highlight clips would be on their website?" "Fine." As the crush of reporters surrounded him Wednesday, Sproles slowly lowered his head to the table as he voice continued to taper off. You get the impression he is far more comfortable facing, say, an Oklahoma defense than the herd of sports media. Sproles, of course, does most of his talking on the field.

The All-American posted a nation-leading 1,986 yards for the defending Big 12 champs last season to finish third on the Associated Press' Player of the Year ballot. He currently ranks No. 4 on the Big 12 career rushing chart with 3,661 yards. His 4,745 career all-purpose yards leaves him just 1,247 yards shy of Texas' Ricky Williams' all-time mark. Like Sproles himself, those were relatively quiet yards. The Wildcats disappeared from the college football radar screen after dropping three straight games before mid-season (including that 24-20 loss to Texas in Austin). Sproles national coming-out party was during last December's Big 12 title game when he shredded top-ranked Oklahoma for 235 yards.

"We played extremely sound," Snyder said of the 35-7 shocker. "Our youngster played highly motivated and extremely hard. We made very few mistakes. Oklahoma just probably didn't play as well. White was injured and we knew that. Oklahoma wouldn't make excuses about that, and I know that."

The upset win brought the once-beleaguered program its first Big 12 title, a pipe dream compared to when just 13,000 showed up for Wildcat games during Snyder's first season in 1989.

"The people I thought of immediately (following the win) was those 13,000 people," Snyder said. "When we went there in 1989, the previous (average) attendance was 13,000. That's not enough to maintain a Division I football team. But there's something to be said about those 13,000 who had been there through thick and thin. It was certainly a special achievement but I'd hate to think it was the landmark for the Kansas State football program."

The Wildcats are a solid choice to at least repeat as Big 12 North Division champs but, with Nebraska in transition, it may come down to November road games at Missouri and Colorado. The KSU defense has been hit hard now that seven starters have completed their eligibility, including three linemen and two linebackers. The bigger question is who will fill the cleats of former QB Ell Roberson? Sophomore Dylan Meier is the heir apparent. But inexperience at quarterback doesn't mean Snyder intends to make Sproles the center of the offense, even though the 5-7 mighty-mite is the center of the school's Heisman push.

"It means that 10 other guys need to give (the QB) some help," Snyder said. "I don't think anyone would be excluded from that. The bottom line is that (Sproles) can do some things and he's got a whole bunch of clips that he can show you that he can make guys miss."

And as far as all that media attention? Well, Sproles wouldn't miss that, either.

OSU STILL COUNTING ON WOODS BROTHERS TO LEAD OFFENSE

Oklahoma State is not out of the Woods yet, and that's why the program should continue its gradual ascent under fourth-year coach Les Miles. All-American WR Rashaun Woods has taken his record-setting game to the NFL but, oh brother!, does WR D'Juan Woods remind teammates of his older sibling. Meanwhile, RS-freshman Donovan Woods will likely start at quarterback this fall.

Former starting QB Josh Fields was a Chicago White Sox first round draft pick in June while stud QB recruit Bobby Reid is highly questionable after injuring a shoulder last spring.

"Bobby Reid has had a real good summer even though he is slowed some," Miles said. "We don't know when exactly we'll have him back. There will be some competition from Donovan Woods at that position. We expect our offense to do the things we've always done and that's run-pass with balance."

Miles is cautiously optimistic of Wood's grasp of the offense and command of the huddle during spring ball.

"His progress has been good to this point," Miles said, "but we'll see how he plays on Saturday."

Miles is also replacing RB Tatum Bell, another NFL first-rounder. Junior Vernand Morency will likely get the starting nod over senior Seymore Shaw. Hampered by nagging injuries since arriving in Stillwater, Shaw logged a team-high 14 carries for 63 yards against Texas last season after the Horns knocked Bell out of the game.

"Our veterans on the offensive side have to play stronger to give our younger players time to grow," Miles said.

The sophomore Woods is practically a veteran among the skill positions and will be the "go to" guy in 2004. His 31 grabs for 479 yards trailed only his older brother's totals. He added a team-high three catches for a career-best 74 yards in that 55-16 loss to Texas. First-team All-Big 12 LCB Darrent Williams predicts opponents won't be able to tell the difference between the older and younger Woods.

"There' not a big difference in covering them," Williams said. "Both are capable of embarrassing you on any play. Both run good routes and have good hands."

Added Miles, "I think defenses will very quickly take D'Juan Woods into account. He'll give us some of the same weapons we had in Rashaun, but that will be for the defenses to determine."

Now, if only Miles could exert his influence to determine where OSU begins each season. For the third straight year, the Cowboys open on the road. This year, they kickoff at UCLA in the Rose Bowl. And even though Miles is on the brink of leading the program to three straight bowl appearances, he wants to avoid three straight season-opening losses. Last year, OSU opened with a loss at Nebraska.

"We do want to start with victory and look to that opportunity very aggressively," Miles said.

The Cowboys return eight defensive starters, including its entire secondary.

"We're looking for some new guys on the defensive line, but the secondary is as good as it's been since I've been here," Williams said. "And I've been playing since my freshman year. We think we have the ability to go out there and dominate."

If not, then the Woods are a good place to venture.

Texas hosts OSU on November 6.

NO 'JOKE': IOWA STATE SHOULD BE BETTER IN 2004

Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney has a reputation for being as intense and as hard-working a coach in the business. That's why he wasn't laughing when he called his team's ground game "a joke" last season while pronouncing last year's 2-10 record (0-8 in Big 12) an embarrassment. It can only get better, right?

One reason the Cyclones should sport an improved mark in 2004 is because Baylor replaces Oklahoma on the schedule. More important, McCarney has made former Nebraska assistant Barney Cotton his offensive coordinator and his offensive line coach.

"We were physically beaten in the trenches a number of times last year," McCarney said. "It's not just the offensive line because the receivers and the backfield are also involved in the blocking. Barney Cotton has a great presence around him. You've got to have the knowledge, you've got to have the intensity, you've got to have the ability and the skill to teach, the ability to build relationships, and Barney brings all those things. He seems very, very appreciative of the opportunity he has at Iowa State. I'm thrilled to have him."

Last year's slide, of course, was anything but thrilling after the Cyclones had registered three straight bowl appearances.

"None of us were proud of last year," McCarney said. "We were all embarrassed and disappointed about it, but that was last year. Let's move on let's get ready for this year. Collectively, there is a renewed optimism and a renewed passion back in the program that, last year was unacceptable. We need to get back to where we were when every Saturday we had a chance."

The 'Clones previously had a chance thanks to, in no small part, slippery quarterback Seneca Wallace. Right now, the quarterback spot is "real wide open" McCarney said, and it comes down to a battle between Austin Flynn (seven starts in 2003) and Bret Meyer (prep All-American who has yet to take a snap on college game day).

"We've got to make a decision during (August) camp because it was a real battle during spring," McCarney said. "I really like both of those kids. Whoever starts that game September 4, we're going to be better at quarterback than we were last year."

Senior DB Ellis Hobbs has seen both candidates, up close and personal. Meyer is "more of a Vince Young type. Once he gets into the open field it's hard to catch him, but he can make plays with his arm." Meanwhile, "Flynn likes to make plays. He is fast and explosive, but can also throw very well. He has had his ups and downs, but he has to go through the tough times to get to the good ones."

Equally important to Hobbs is restoring some semblance of team chemistry that was missing last season.

"If we don't have that chemistry, we have no chance of winning," he said. "The results of no chemistry will get you another bad season."


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