darren sproles

Kenjon Barner displaying return skills passed down by Darren Sproles

Kenjon Barner displaying return skills passed down by Darren Sproles

The Eagles' punt-return unit takes the field. Darren Sproles catches the football, makes a man miss, and he’s off to the races again.

Only thing is ... it wasn't Sproles on Sunday vs. Arizona. On Sunday, it was Kenjon Barner.

Barner ripped off a 76-yard return and was finally pulled down at the 15-yard line, setting up an Eagles touchdown three plays later. And like so many huge returns and momentum shifts before, it may not have happened without Sproles.

Who do you think taught Barner that?

“I studied Sproles, I studied Devin Hester, even going back to Dante Hall, really studied guys like that,” Barner said Sunday after the Eagles’ 34-7 win over the Cardinals. “Usually, if you make that first guy miss, you can go a long way.

“Watching Sproles, being here with Sproles, it’s very rare that first guy is ever going to touch me. Very rare. If you make that first guy miss, you can be off to the races.”

Barner has demonstrated an innate ability in the return game going back to his days at Oregon, taking a kickoff back as a freshman, then a punt as a sophomore. But it wasn’t until he joined the Eagles and began watching Sproles from up close and personal that Barner began to realize his full potential.

Instincts and athleticism were never the issue. Barner said he learned how to approach the return game from Sproles.

“Prior to me getting here and being around Sproles, I just went out there,” Barner said of his pregame routine. “I caught punts from our punter. I didn’t really pay attention to the other team’s punter. Obviously, you watch film on them, but I didn’t actually see him kick. I would just catch our punter’s punts and carry on.

“[Sproles] taught me how to be a professional about it, how to study. What you see on film may not be what you see on the field. So catching punts from our punter initially, getting warmed up, but then going down and watching their punter. Seeing how he’s hitting the ball, seeing how he’s hitting his plus-50 kicks, seeing how deep he’s kicking it, seeing if he’s mishitting balls — just really paying attention to everything their punter is doing.”

In 2015, one year after he first joined the Eagles in a trade from the Carolina Panthers, Barner had a preseason to remember, returning two punts for touchdowns. He wound up making the team out of training camp and stuck for two seasons, but saw limited opportunities behind Sproles and was allowed to depart as a free agent this past offseaon.

The Eagles simply didn’t need another return man until Sproles suffered a season-ending injury. But when the call came, Barner was beyond prepared to step into that role.

“Watching film, you know (Cardinals punter) Andy Lee’s track record,” Barner said. “You know he’s going to kick the ball. You know he’s going to boom it. You know you’re going to have an opportunity.

“But aside from that, I needed to get a visual for myself up close and personal. Pregame, I was back there with the Cardinals on their side of the field. I’m approaching the ball like — I’m not going to catch it, but I’m getting behind their players while they’re catching it just so I can see it, just to get a feel for it, and that’s what Sproles taught me.”

Less than two weeks into his Eagles return, Barner felt as though he finally got a monkey off his back. The only thing that was missing was a touchdown.

“My guys up front just did a great job,” Barner said. “They opened holes for me, they opened lanes for me, allowed me to see the field. I was able to make a guy miss, cut back.

“I would’ve liked to finish that play a lot different.”

The offense was able to finish what Barner started, but that return against the Cardinals did a lot more than help put six points on the board. It provided the entire team — and all of Lincoln Financial Field for that matter — with an infusion of energy.

“Uplifts the whole team and puts us in a great field position offensively,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. “Thought he did an outstanding job there today in the return game and also as a runner.

“Some of the returns that we got, I think it just kept injecting juice into the team, into the atmosphere,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.

There’s no way to replace a three-time Pro Bowler like Sproles. His role on offense is almost impossible to replicate. Yet, at least in the return game, the Eagles have somebody who has been shadowing Sproles for years in Barner.

Barner is just grateful for the opportunity, not only to finally return kicks in a meaningful NFL game, but also to be back with the Eagles.

“It’s just in the short time that I’ve been here — two weeks now — guys are closer,” Barner said. “Guys have a lot of belief in each other. Not that they didn’t have belief in each other last year, but I think guys having a year in Doug’s system, a year under him getting comfortable with his coaching style, getting comfortable with each other.

“I think that’s the biggest difference. Guys really knowing what we have in this locker room, knowing what we’re capable of as a team.”

Hard to ignore the irony of Kenjon Barner replacing Darren Sproles

Hard to ignore the irony of Kenjon Barner replacing Darren Sproles

Kenjon Barner has always spoken about how influential Darren Sproles was during their three years together.  

So it's hard to ignore the irony.

Barner now has a job because Sproles got hurt.

“I didn’t know it happened, I didn’t see the game," said Barner, who's been out of the league since he was released on Sept. 2 by the Chargers.

"I got a text from Sproles at like 5 in the morning West Coast time [Monday] saying, 'I tore my ACL.' I didn't even know. 

"You hate to see that, especially from a guy who’s one of the best guys I've ever met in the league. So to see him go down like that was terrible. You never want to see any guy go down like that.

“Sproles has been a huge influence on my career and has really helped me a lot. So to see him go down, I wasn’t happy about that."

But he was happy to get a chance to play football again.

Sproles, eighth in NFL history in all-purpose yards, broke his arm and tore his ACL during the Eagles' win over the Giants Sunday at the Linc and is out for the season.

Barner, originally a sixth-round pick of the Panthers in 2013, got 55 carries playing for both Chip Kelly — his college coach — and Doug Pederson in Philly. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry with two touchdowns. He also caught 14 passes for 64 yards and returned three punts and 10 kickoffs.

His role Sunday? If he has one, it will likely just be bringing back punts. With LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement, there probably won't be any more carries to go around.

"I'll be ready. I'll be ready," Barner said. "It's not [hard]. I'm a professional. Your job is to get ready and stay ready. If they call my number, I'll be ready."

Barner had a rough summer with the Chargers. He fumbled twice, missed a preseason game with a concussion and averaged just 1.9 yards on 14 carries.

“I’ve been around a little while, so you could kind of see how things go, how things are shaping up," he said. "I wasn’t really surprised [to be released]."

He's been home in Tustin, California, in Orange County, for the last month, working out on his own, hoping for a call.

“It's not a good feeling," he said. "You work out and you want to be involved in this game, so to be at home is never a good feeling."

Without a team, he went to a local field and practiced catching punts.

“I don’t have a [kicking] machine, but I have a friend back home who kicks to me," he said. "He’s not an NFL kicker but he gets the ball in the air.

"You continue to work, continue to grind, wait for the opportunity, and fortunately for me, it came."

But at 28 years old and with a limited résumé, there was no guarantee it would come. 

“I never really thought about that, I’m all about positive vibes," he said at his locker after practice Wednesday. 

"I don’t want to feed myself anything negative, because what you feed your brain, what you feed your mind, that’s what it’ll feed on. So it was all about positive thoughts."

Barner spoke a lot about Sproles, who the Eagles acquired in the spring of 2014, five months before they traded a seventh-round pick to the Panthers for Barner.

Asked what he learned from Sproles, Barner replied:

"How to be a professional. How to carry myself. How to approach the game. How to approach film. How to approach meetings. That dude has taught me a lot."

It's been an eventful five years for Barner. He's been traded, released twice, placed on injured reserve, spent time on the practice squad but never really found a role.

“Everything that I’ve been told is true, just about the nature of the business," he said. "Just what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. It makes you hungry, man. Because you’re watching guys play something you want to be part of but you can’t do. It makes you push a lot harder and really grind for it."

Barner wore No. 34 in his first stint with the Eagles, but that now belongs to injured rookie Donnel Pumphrey.

So he was out at practice Sunday wearing No. 38, most recently worn by Aaron Grymes. 

“That’s terrible," Barner said with a laugh. "That number is terrible. LeGarrette told me, 'Hey, you’ve just got to make it look good.' Definitely terrible but just gotta make it work."

'No doubt' Wendell Smallwood will have increased role after Darren Sproles' injury

'No doubt' Wendell Smallwood will have increased role after Darren Sproles' injury

It would be unfair to expect Wendell Smallwood to become Darren Sproles before Sunday's game in Los Angeles.

It's not going to happen. 

"I'm not sure you can ever replace 43 in that regard," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "He's just a unique player. But feel good about Wendell stepping up."

While Smallwood won't become Sproles, the Eagles are definitely going to lean on him throughout the rest of the 2017 season. Of the three running backs they were left with after the injury, Smallwood's set of skills most closely resembles that of Sproles, and Smallwood is now the most experienced back in the offense.

Even with the addition of Kenjon Barner (see story), Smallwood is likely going to be the main piece to fill the void Sproles' injury will leave for the Eagles' offense, especially on third downs. 

"There's no doubt Wendell is going to have an increased role," Reich said. "He's the guy ... I think all the guys have some third-down ability, but Wendell has really improved in that area. He's shown natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route-running standpoint."

The Eagles already showed a glimpse into their plans after Sproles went down Sunday. After the 13-year veteran left the game early in the second quarter, the Eagles faced 11 third-down situations the rest of the way; Smallwood was on the field for eight of them. LeGarrette Blount got the other three, one of which was a 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line. 

An area in which Smallwood has improved greatly from last season is in his pass protection. Smallwood said pass blocking is something running back coach Duce Staley harps on. When they watched film of the Giants game Tuesday, Staley was impressed and got the impression that the focus on technique is working. Likewise, Reich was impressed with Smallwood's blocking on Sunday, saying Smallwood did a good job against Steve Spagnuolo's complicated blitz schemes. 

Having the ability to block is a big part of a guy's ability to perform on third down. That becomes even more important for Smallwood now that Sproles is out for the rest of the season. 

"Yeah, it's huge," Smallwood said. "I'm just glad that I watched behind Darren and I learned his role in the third downs and the calls. And the things he's been getting, I've been learning it since I got here, behind him. Not saying I'm going to be required to do it as much as he was. But now he's gone, so someone has to step in and do it and I think I'm going to have to take on that role."

But pass protecting is just part of the duty for a running back on the field for third downs. Another important part is being able to catch the ball out of the backfield. It seems like Smallwood has the ability but has just nine catches in 16 career games. 

During his time with the Eagles, Sproles has averaged nine catches about every three games. He has 532 career catches and is one of the best receiving running backs in NFL history. 

While Smallwood won't become Sproles, he admitted he'll take on some of the burden of trying to replace him. After all, he's really close to his 34-year-old teammate. The two actually lived next to each other during Smallwood's rookie season last year and on Tuesday, Smallwood said he's been in near constant communication with Sproles since the injury. 

While Sproles hinted toward a possible comeback, Smallwood said the two hadn't talked about it. 

"He's doing good," Smallwood said. "He's a fighter and a competitor. I'm like, 'You had an ACL and you just walked off the field?' He was like, 'Man, I'm a fighter, I'm a bully.' I'm like, 'Yeah, you right.' And even when he thought he did something he was just like, 'Hey, check my knee out,' or something like that. He's a tough guy and I admire that guy to death."