Saints’ Sproles ready to repeat historic success
METAIRIE — Every time New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles touches the football, with every shifty, greased-lightning move he makes, a challenge is issued to opponents.
Catch the human roadrunner if you can.
Last season, that task was daunting as Sproles established an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards on 242 touches, or 11.1 yards per touch, making him arguably the biggest-bang-for-your-buck free-agent acquisition in 2011.
Though limited to spot duty in two exhibition games because of an injured knee, Sproles said he is raring to go and will be “100 percent’’ for Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Washington Redskins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Kickoff is set for noon.
A man of few words, Sproles declined to describe the specific nature of his injury, reminding inquisitive reporters at midweek that such talk is forbidden by team officials.
“You know I can’t talk about those things,’’ he said, sheepishly. “I feel fresh, though. You do what you have to do.’’
In the days and weeks following the injury against the New England Patriots on Aug. 9, Sproles downplayed his situation and said he could have played if it were the regular season.
Sproles returned to practice fully Wednesday and is no longer listed on the teams’s injury report, indicating he will be among the Saints’ arsenal of weapons on offense and special teams.
He alone can be a wrecking crew. Last season, he scored 13 touchdowns in 18 games as a running back (four), receiver (eight) and returner (one).
“(Sproles) is one of the most complete football players I’ve ever played with,’’ said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who used his persuasive powers to convince Sproles to sign with the Saints after the NFL lockout in August 2011. “He has the ability to do so many things. He’s extremely dangerous when you get him in space and get him out of the backfield.’’
Because of his quickness and ability to change gears in midstride, Sproles can stretch the field vertically and horizontally and poses a receiving threat in the slot and coming out of the backfield.
“You talk to any defensive player in the league and they (say) they don’t want to cover that guy because he can go a lot of places and get there very quickly,’’ Brees said. “And, if you’re trying to track him across the field, good luck to you. That allows him to be quite a weapon.”
Though listed at 5-feet-6 and 190 pounds, Sproles has proven to be very durable since entering the NFL in 2005 as a fourth-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers. Other than missing the entire 2006 season with a broken ankle, Sproles has played in no fewer than 15 games in any other season — including all 16 the past four seasons.
“I think that’s what makes him such a complete football player as well,’’ Brees said. “You look at his size and stature, but pound for pound he’s one of the toughest guys in the league, and strongest. If you watch him practice, you see why. The guy’s full speed all the time.
“He takes so much pride in what he does. He loves football. He wants to be great and more than anything he wants to be reliable and dependable. He’s going to fight through (injuries).”
In one short season, Sproles has established himself as a “go-to guy’’ on offense, regardless of the down and distance. And that role is not expected to be diminished in the absence of suspended head coach Sean Payton and interim coach Joe Vitt.
“As many times as we can get Darren Sproles the football, it makes us a lot smarter,’’ said Vitt’s interim replacement, offensive line coach/running game coordinator Aaron Kromer. “He can do so many things, and he is such a weapon. When you have Darren Sproles in the game and Jimmy Graham in the game and then our multitude of receivers we have, you can’t double team guys. There are a lot of guys that will try to double-team someone, and it’s hard to double-team any of our guys because Drew will throw it to the other guy.
Kromer issued the final injury report for Sunday’s game following Friday’s practice. T Marcel Jones (knee) did not practice and won’t play, while CB Jabari Greer (groin), MLB Curtis Lofton (ankle), WLB David Hawthorne (knee) and WR Adrian Arrington (knee) are questionable. ... Arrington didn’t work and Greer was limited, but Lofton and Hawthorne had full participation in practice for the second straight day and will probably start. ... The only player listed as out for the Redskins is SS Brandon Meriweather (knee). ... Kromer said Sproles will likely return punts and kickoffs even though wide receiver Lance Moore or rookie running back Travaris Cadet could spell him — if Cadet is active for the game. ... The Saints will have a light walkthrough at their practice facility on Saturday morning to wrap up their preps for the game.