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Although they are 2-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 6 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50, the De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) Spartans are not firing on all cylinders. After a pair of lackluster, single-digit victories, the Spartans will face their biggest test of the year Saturday when they take on East Coast powerhouse Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.).
For De La Salle to come up big Saturday (ESPNU, 10:30 p.m. ET) and stay on track for another national championship, the Spartans are going to need a big performance from one of their more diminutive players, running back Kylan Butler.
At 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, Butler is short but not small. He's a strong, powerful runner with tree-trunk legs, and the first defender rarely brings him down.
|Like many De La Salle alums, Kylan Butler will play his college ball in the Pac-10.|
Edison isn't alone in comparing Butler to Sproles. Coaches at the University of Arizona, which Butler committed to in April, also see similarities between the two backs.
"I talked to Coach [Mike] Smith [the Wildcats' receivers coach], and he actually coached Sproles at Kansas State and said that's who Kylan reminds him of," Eidson said. "I don't think, sizewise, Kylan can be an every-down back in college, but I think with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, he can be a great change-of-pace back and should do very well at Arizona."
Butler wasn't born with a football in his hands; he got a relatively late start in the sport. But when he put the pads on, his natural abilities were evident.
"It was almost by accident that I got into football," Butler said. "My family moved from Oakland to Antioch when I was around 10 or 11. I was on the playground playing basketball with some of my friends, and I got approached by someone who coached the local Pop Warner team.
Butler already had a good idea of what the De La Salle program was all about before he entered high school. Two of his older cousins, Leon Callen (Arizona) and Atari Callen (Idaho State), were legendary running backs in the program. Butler knew he would have to work harder than he ever had in his life to make an impact on one of the nation's top prep programs.
"I went to the De La Salle summer football camps in seventh and eighth grade and learned what hard work was all about," Butler said. "Until you get here and really experience what we go through, it's really tough to explain. People always ask, 'What's your secret, how do you guys win so much?'"
Butler says that living up to the program's winning tradition has served as more than adequate motivation.
"Honestly, for us here at De La Salle, it's more than just what we do, it's why we do it. We take so much pride in wearing that Spartan jersey and know that every game we play, we're not just playing for ourselves or for our teammates. We're playing for every player who has ever worn that Spartan jersey, and we know we can't let those guys down.
"Football is year around here," Butler said. "Last year after we won the state championship, I think that was on a Friday, the following Monday, we had 60 players back in the weight room. Even for the players that play another sport, they're in here doing their workouts early in the morning before school since they can't be in here after school.
"It really is just a mindset for us. In the summer, when all of our friends are relaxing and doing whatever, we're doing two- and three-hour running and lifting workouts. Who wants to do that? None of us do, but we go through it anyway because we know the rest of our teammates are doing it and we can't let them down and not work like they are."
Although blessed with extreme talent -- Eidson says he was the best freshman in the program in 2005 -- Butler didn't exactly get his Spartans career off to the kind of start he was hoping for. In his second game, Butler tore his ACL and missed the rest of the year. It was a testament to his work ethic and desire that he came back from that injury and made the varsity as a sophomore.
Butler rushed for 761 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior and added four more scores catching the ball. He also had one of the biggest plays of the game in De La Salle's stirring 37-31 victory over Centennial (Corona, Calif.) in the state title game. On a key third down, the Spartans ran a screen for Butler, who broke three tackles to pick up the first down.
"Last year was really his coming-out party and when I knew he had the talent to be a Div. I player," Eidson said. "Not only is Kylan a great player, though, he's the emotional leader on this team. He's the one that gets everyone going, and after he talks to the team, everyone is fired-up and ready to play.
Butler's leadership abilities and competitive nature extend beyond the field to the classroom.
"He's an outspoken kid and has no problem speaking his mind," Eidson said. "I taught him his freshman year in my religion class, and we used to have debates all the time in class. It wasn't anything disrespectful."Like many great De La Salle players who came before him, Butler is not one to get complacent. After tasting a state championship, Butler said that's all he's focusing on right now.
"That's why I wanted to commit so early," Butler said. "During the season, I don't want to think about anything other than helping us win another state title. Again, it's not just about personal pride, it's about doing it for everyone who supports us.
That support comes from quite a few noteworthy alums.
"A lot of former players like Maurice [Jones-Drew, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars] and Demetrius [Williams, now with the Baltimore Ravens] still come by practice to check on us and make sure we're working hard. Mostly they just like to be around the program, and I'm sure that's how it will be for me, too. You have to sacrifice a lot to play here. When you play football at De La Salle, you don't eat lunch like everyone else.
"I haven't eaten a normal lunch one time since I've been here because at lunchtime, we're all watching film. Sure we eat while we watch it, but that's how dedicated we are, and I wouldn't want it any other way."
Greg Biggins covers West Coast recruiting for ESPN.com.