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Redskins vs. Eagles preview: Rookie RBs look like steals

BY ZAC BOYER

ASHBURN—Though it was certain to be vastly different than anything he had ever experienced, Roy Helu was sure he’d take over as the Washington Redskins’ running back at some point during his rookie season.

The question, though, was when. Helu, a fifth-round selection out of Nebraska in April’s NFL draft, was buried on the depth chart after the early days of training camp, at best a comfortable third behind Tim Hightower and Ryan Torain.

It took patience. It took performance. And, as is often the case, it took injury. When Helu became the primary option at Seattle on Nov. 27, Hightower was already out for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee and Torain, the team’s leading rusher a year ago, had proven ineffective.

When the Redskins take the field at Philadelphia today, the last day of the season, Helu and fellow rookie Evan Royster will find themselves as the only running backs on the active roster. It’s a change from the Hightower–Torain–Helu triumvirate that took the sidelines for the season-opener against the New York Giants on Sept. 11.

“You know, [a few] days ago, I looked around and I was like, ‘Man, everyone who is here since our very first day has been different,’” Helu said. “It’s been rotating, and now, we look a lot younger in there.”

There are two certainties when it comes to the running game under Mike Shanahan: there will be plenty of carries, and there will be plenty of runners. Shanahan will finish his second season as the Redskins’ head coach this afternoon, during which time seven different players have led the team in rushing.

Helu knew this. That’s why, he said, it was easy to trust in the system when he arrived at Redskins Park for training camp, understanding that heeding the coaches’ advice and improving as a one-cut back in the zone-blocking scheme would be the best way to accelerate that process.

“They make great decisions on personnel and who to play,” Helu said. “I was confident in that when I first started with Tim. I was to spell Tim at the beginning of the year, and then later on, when Tim went down, Ryan went, and then I went. And then we went back and forth. I understood. I understood why they were doing that, because I had that trust in them ever since I first got here.”

Royster, too, knew patience would be required during his rookie season. A sixth-round pick out of Penn State, Royster faced an additional hurdle: he began the season on the practice squad and was signed to the active roster only on Nov. 22, time enough for the final six games of the season.

As a practice squad running back, Royster was saddled with being on the scout team—the collection of reserves who simulate the opposing offense and defense in practice each week. Routinely going up against the Redskins’ top defense was a blessing in disguise, Royster said, as his improvement came rapidly against a unit that currently ranks amongst the middle third of teams in the NFL against the run.

Royster’s first real opportunity came last week against Minnesota when, with Helu sidelined because of injury, he carried the ball 19 times for 132 yards.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Royster said. “My emotions are up and down. At the beginning of the season, I was disappointed I was cut, but at the same time, I just need to come out and work every week—and I did, and it paid off.”

After the first four weeks, the Redskins were tied for sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game—mostly because of Hightower, but partly due to Torain and Helu as well. A six-game losing streak saw the team deviate from the run—trailing in a game is not a run-friendly situation—but the team has gotten back on track since mid-November, when a home overtime loss to Dallas marked the first time the Redskins had been competitive in over a month.

“The last four, five games, we’ve had that flow,” Shanahan said, “and in order to score points with the football like you want to, we’re going to be productive in that area.”

Helu became the first rookie running back in team history to rush for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games when he did so against Seattle, the New York Jets and New England. Royster’s performance against the Vikings also marked the first time two rookies surpassed 100 yards rushing in a single game in the same season in Redskins history.

And while roster flexibility played a part, Shanahan was confident enough in Helu and Royster to release Torain on Tuesday. Hightower is a free agent after this season, owing to a one-year deal he signed over the summer, but both he and Shanahan have expressed mutual interest in a return next season.

Royster said Torain’s release was tough to see, given that he considers the running back a mentor and friend. But it’s Shanahan’s system, and if there’s one thing that system has demonstrated over the years, it’s that opportunities will come, however fleeting they may be.

“I hope that was the reasoning for it,” Royster said. “I hope it’s because Roy and I have played well.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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