Evan Royster Shines In First Start, First Opportunity As Redskins’ Feature Back
ASHBURN – After insisting all week he’d be able to fight through nagging knee and toe injuries, as well as a swollen right eye that gradually got better as the days progressed, Roy Helu stepped onto the grass at FedEx Field on Saturday morning and didn’t feel like himself.
Or maybe he did. The rookie recently admitted the rigors of the season caught up to him “around Week 7,” or mid-October, and he managed a tired, banged-up body for the better part of the second half of the Washington Redskins’ season.
When the coaching staff saw Helu trying to run, cut, plant and push off before the Redskins played Minnesota, they decided they’d seen enough. Helu sustained unspecified knee and toe injuries a week prior against the New York Giants and was not active to play against the Vikings, marking his first game on the sidelines this season.
Washington then turned to Evan Royster, who showed he was more than capable in the role by carrying the ball 19 times for 132 yards in the 33-26 Minnesota victory.
“I was excited,” Royster said. “I was excited to be able to get my first start and to be able to carry a little bit of the load.”
Helu averaged slightly over 111 yards on 21 carries for three games, beginning with the Redskins’ victory at Seattle on Nov. 27, but had only 53 yards on 23 carries against the Giants.
That left the running game against Minnesota to Royster. He averaged 6.9 yards a carry against a Vikings defense that allowed only 3.8 yards an attempt to opposing runners all season – a mark that put them sixth in the league.
The rookie broke off a 28-yard run, which tied for the team’s second-longest run from scrimmage of the season, while catching two passes for 15 yards. He had few problems in pass protection or picking up blitzes
“I just think he had a great game,” head coach Mike Shanahan said. “I thought Evan made a lot of great cuts and was very productive throughout the whole game and gave us a chance to score some points.”
Perhaps Royster’s greatest attribute was his vision. On that 28-yard gain, which he broke off with 1:41 left in the third quarter, he took a pitch to the right before cutting back, breaking a tackle and picking up nearly 13 yards after contact. Four plays later, the first of the fourth quarter, he broke three tackles and gained another 16 yards.
“If you’ve got a back going down on first contact all the time, you’ve got to find another back,” Royster said. “Our running backs coach [Bobby Turner] is always telling us that all the time. If we’re not breaking tackles, we’ve got to find somebody else to go in. That’s the nature of the game. You’ve got to go out there and get yards after contact and move the chains.”
The 6-foot-1, 213-pound Royster, a sixth-round pick who was the all-time leading rusher at Penn State, surpassed 1,000 yards in each of his final three seasons. He spent the first 11 weeks of the season on the Redskins’ practice squad until being promoted to the active roster on Nov. 22 and had played in each of the four previous games as the top reserve at running back.
“I kind of got broken in pretty slowly, and it’s been good for me,” Royster said. “I think I got one carry in my first game and none in my second, and it’s kind of helped me get comfortable with the game and getting up to speed.”
Helu’s availability for the season finale Sunday at Philadelphia will largely determine Royster’s role. There’s a chance the coaches have seen enough from Helu to be able to evaluate him properly and could leave him as Royster’s backup.
“Hopefully the coaches see it as I’m ready to come in and get some more time and get some more carries,” Royster said. “That’s what I want, but it’s their decision. Roy’s still a good back, and even Tim [Hightower], when he gets back [from a torn ACL in his left knee], there’s going to be a lot of competition at this spot and I’m hoping we all can contribute.”