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Column: Eagles’ Darren Sproles seems to get better with age

Darren Sproles

Eagles running back Darren Sproles scores on a 19-yard touchdown run against the Colts in the second quarter of their game on Monday night in Indianapolis.

(AJ Mast / Associated Press)

Darren Sproles is the one who got away. That’s how former New Orleans teammate Drew Brees sees him.

Sproles is also the one who gets away. Again and again.

Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden can’t ignore that when he watches tape of Sproles, the scorching-fast Philadelphia running back traded to the Eagles in March for a fifth-round pick.

With Washington preparing to play at Philadelphia on Sunday, the Redskins not only have to gear up for LeSean McCoy — last season’s NFL rushing champion — but also the 31-year-old Sproles, who looks to be getting faster and more elusive with age.

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“You’d think when McCoy comes out of the game we’re high-fiving, you know, ‘Hey, he’s on the bench, thank God,’” Gruden said in a conference call this week. “All of a sudden Sproles comes in and we’re like, ‘Oh ...’ They’re two dynamic players when the ball is in their hands out in space. Our job is to know where they are at all times.”

Want to know where Sproles is? Check the end zone. He’s gotten there in both come-from-behind victories for the Eagles this season, torching Indianapolis on Monday night for 203 all-purpose yards and a touchdown, and sparking a 34-0 rally in the second half against Jacksonville with a 49-yard touchdown run in the opener.

Sproles is not only the smallest player on the field, at 5 feet 6 and 190 pounds, but also the most dangerous. His size belies his remarkable strength, evident on his 19-yard touchdown run against the Colts, which started with a juke and ended with him bashing his way through four would-be tacklers and across the goal line.

When most fans think of Sproles, they think of his blistering speed. Not his dad, though. He thinks power.

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“He loves to run in between the tackles; that’s his main thing,” his father, Larry Sproles, said by phone Thursday. “His body of work since he’s been in high school and college is living between the tackles. He hates sweeps. He hates pitches. You can see when he gets a pitch, he’s always looking for the cutback. He’s seen too many people get hurt getting hit out of bounds and getting up under the bench. That’s what he fears.”

Larry Sproles calls his son “Tank,” and has since Darren was a 10-pound newborn. Not that Darren is a bad name for a running back. In fact, his name was inspired by Minnesota running back Darrin Nelson, Larry’s favorite boyhood NFL player.

But “Tank” is more fitting, Larry said, and Darren has that nickname tattooed on one of his biceps. Larry was a 5-foot-5 running back at MidAmerica Nazarene University whose own dreams of playing in the pros ended when he cut one way and his knee cut the other. So he coached his son, who began playing in a youth league in Olathe, Kan., and it was evident early that Tank was something special.

“He was 8 years old, and they had a mercy rule,” his father said. “If you got three or four touchdowns ahead, they called the game. We didn’t want to humiliate the kids. Every time Tank would touch the ball, he’d score. There were times when he didn’t even get tackled and they’d call the game.”

Opposing parents complained because Sproles’ games would be over before halftime. Their kids weren’t even getting a chance to play because the mercy rule kicked in so quickly. That lasted for two weeks. Finally, the coaches agreed to a new rule: Sproles could no longer receive pitches or run sweeps. Everything had to happen between the tackles.

“That’s how he became an in-between-the-tackles runner,” Larry said. “He had very strong legs, so he’d run over guys when they’d get near him, then he’d run away from you.”

Father and son used to compete about who could lift the most weight. That pretty much ended when Darren was bench pressing multiple repetitions of 405 pounds, and, as his dad said, “squatting Volkswagens.”

A fourth-round pick by San Diego in 2005, Sproles spent his first six seasons with the Chargers, who already had two outstanding backs in LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner. Sproles sent six seasons there and became a fan favorite who had some spectacular games. The Chargers mostly saw him as a specialty back, however, and eventually drafted a more prototypical tailback in Ryan Mathews.

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In 2011, Sproles took advantage of free agency and signed a four-year deal with New Orleans, turning down offers from San Diego and Philadelphia to join the Saints. He scored 22 touchdowns in three seasons there, and earned the respect of one of the best quarterbacks in football.

After the Saints traded Sproles to Philadelphia, Brees told Fox Sports: “That was one of the tougher ones for me. I feel like that was my guy, that was my pick and I wanted that to last forever. But unfortunately, it didn’t last forever.”

Larry Sproles said his son was typecast by Saints Coach Sean Payton and therefore became expendable.

“The way they do things up in New Orleans, they have five running backs, and they’re all active, and each one of them has a specialty that they do,” the elder Sproles said. “They’ve got one that can run, so he can be a running running back. They’ve got one that can pass block, so he’s going to be a pass-blocking running back. They’ve got one who can catch, and so on.

“When they come in the game, it’s, ‘Oh, this is the blocking running back.’ So he’s going to block. They’ve got a running back who catches screens? ‘Oh, you must be the screen running back.’ So here come the screens. [Payton] labels all of them, and it just tips his hand. So every time Tank comes in the game, guess what? ‘Screen!’ The linebacker’s saying ‘screen’ or ‘sweep.’ They’re tipping their hand.”

By Larry Sproles’ thinking, Eagles Coach Chip Kelly is far more creative about how he uses his son.

“With Chip Kelly, it’s like, ‘I’ve seen this young man. I know what he can do. I watched K-State. So when he comes in the game with me, you’ve got to watch him running and catching and pass blocking,’” the elder Sproles said. “You’re going to have the whole gamut with Chip Kelly when it comes to Darren.”

And, at an age when most NFL running backs have either hit the wall or retired, Sproles looks to be only picking up speed.

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