Chargers Eye All Options for New Backfield

RB Darren Sproles (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

When Darren Sproles signed his restricted free agent tender, speculation began that he did so only to facilitate a trade. If that's the case, the Chargers will be on the lookout for a kick returner and change-of-pace back in the NFL Draft. Get new details on his potential replacement inside.

For a small-school player to get on the radars of NFL teams, he must have eye-popping statistics and he must show enough athleticism to make scouts believe his on-field production will translate to the professional ranks.

Southern Illinois' Deji Karim has done just that.

After a senior season in which he rushed for 1,694 yards and 18 touchdowns while averaging a gaudy 7.1 yards per carry, Karim made the trek to Northwestern's Pro Day four weeks ago. He blew away the field of Big Ten prospects by running his 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.37 seconds, a time that would have ranked second at the Scouting Combine. Along with that, his 20-yard shuttle time of 4.05, his three-cone time of 6.67 and his vertical jump of 43 inches would have topped the field of backs at the Combine.


RB Deji Karim
"That day was definitely a changing point in the process for me," said Karim, a Combine snub. "I went out there and did everything well. Now, I've been getting phone calls like crazy."

Southern Illinois reached the FCS playoffs in 2009 behind Karim, who was the Missouri Valley Conference's offensive player of the year and the leading rusher in FCS by a whopping 192 yards. It was an incredible season for a player who missed all of the 2008 season after surgery to repair a knee injury sustained in the spring didn't heal correctly.

"I thank God for giving me the opportunity to have a second chance at playing football because it was taken away from me," he said.

At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Karim has the body type that has become in vogue because of the success of players like the Jaguars' Maurice Jones Drew and the Ravens' Ray Rice. As his 93-yard touchdown run and timed speed would indicate, Karim is a home run threat. But with his weight, strength and low-to-the-ground running style, Karim isn't one to shy away from contact, either.

Karim shined at the Texas vs. The Nation all-star game, where the first-team All-American and finalist for the Walter Payton Award as FCS's best offensive player carried the ball 11 times for 40 yards and caught two passes for 18 yards. While following blockers and running through holes is the same no matter the level of competition, that game was key for Karim showing that he could compete against a higher pedigree of competition.

"I felt that I belonged, and a lot of people told me that it looked like I belonged, too," he said. "I adjusted to that speed and I felt good out there running with the upper levels. I didn't see too much of a difference at all."

The inside zone was Southern Illinois' primary running play, and the Salukis mixed in some power runs, too. That would fit well with the Chargers' style of running game. And while he caught only 17 passes in 2009, that was more of a byproduct of the system, running backs coach Steve Crutchley said.

Karim also is an explosive player on special teams. He averaged 30.9 yards per kickoff return with one touchdown as a senior. That would have ranked third in FCS had Karim gotten enough opportunities. At the urging of scouts, Karim says he's been working on fielding punts, too.

"I love doing kickoff returns," he said. "Special teams is part of the game that's really important. I love doing that. I love having the ball in my hands any way possible. Kickoff return, any time that part of the game came up, I was amped and ready to do that."

Karim is one of four children, and his mother was his inspiration because of her battle against sickle cell disease.

"She raised us all to be great kids," he said. "With her being sick, she always was able to put food on the table. I give her all the credit."

Karim entered the scouting season as a possible late-round or undrafted prospect. With his amazing athleticism, however, he's worked his way into mid-round contention.

"I can't believe it. It's unbelievable," he said. "When I do hear my name, it's going to be surreal. I won't be able to believe it until it actually happens. That's why I'm hoping the draft comes fast because it's just something that I'll never be able to experience ever again in my life."



Should San Diego trade Sproles and draft Karim? Discuss in the message boards.




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