As the Washington Redskins’ training camp winded down in 2011, Evan Royster looked like a forgotten man.
The all-time leading rusher for Westfield High School and Penn State struggled to adapt to the cutthroat environment of the NFL, where scrupulous daily evaluation pays past accolades no mind.
Coaches didn’t think the rookie was ready to make an impact. Teammates looked at him as an extra body to give other guys a breather. Offensive guard Kory Lichtensteiger later would admit he barely noticed Royster during camp.
Fast forward one year and the Chantilly native is a legitimate contender for the Redskins’ starting running back job. A pair of strong late-season performances and a better understanding of the offense have thrown Royster into a competition with Roy Helu Jr. and Tim Hightower to stand behind rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in the Redskins’ Week 1 matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
“I’ve just got to bring it every day,” Royster said. “Last year, there would be days where I was kind of off. At this point, I can’t afford to do that.”
Unable to impress coaches in training camp last summer, Royster was relegated to the practice squad. The setback dealt a blow to his confidence, but he remained committed to earning a roster spot. Even as he lingered on the practice squad for much of November, Royster never felt tempted to leave the Redskins.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” said Royster, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft. “I wanted to be with this organization. I love being in D.C. I love the fans here. And it’s home for me. I went to high school 20 minutes down the road.”
That high school down the road never will forget Royster’s legacy. He remains Westfield’s all-time leading rusher, having racked up 6,384 yards and 90 touchdowns during the course of a high school career that included three Concorde District championships and a Virginia AAA Division 6 state title.
Although his high school and college careers featured inside zone blocking schemes similar to the ones employed by the Redskins’ offense, Royster encountered difficulty wrapping his head around many of the system’s complexities last year. A natural downhill running back who thrives in between the tackles, Royster had a hard time with some of coach Mike Shanahan’s outside zone schemes, which are more conducive to speedier backs, such as Helu. A fatter playbook combined with faster defensive fronts caused Royster to frequently second-guess himself and hesitate on hitting holes.
Overcoming those mental hurdles was just a matter of time.
“It’s much easier [this year],” Royster said. “I don’t have to worry about thinking, ‘What do I do on this play or on that play?’ I can just go out there and play. Last year, I was out there saying, ‘What’s my responsibility? What do I have to do?’ And now I can just go out there and play football, the same game I’ve been playing for 15 years.”
With those mental blocks cleared aside, Royster once again was able to put his physical gifts to full strength. The Redskins put him on the roster on Nov. 22, and gave him a chance to shine about a month later in a Week 16 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Royster busted loose for 132 yards on 19 carries and followed that up the next week with 119 yards on 20 carries against the Philadelphia Eagles. Suddenly, he wasn’t just another body on a practice field anymore.
Royster’s high school coach, former Westfield head coach Tom Verbanic, knew his pupil would stand out soon enough. Even when he first saw Royster step on the field as a high school freshman, Verbanic noticed physical gifts that promised a special football career.
He had coached Evan’s older brother, Brandon, at Fairfax High, where Brandon shined as an All-American selection and three-time Liberty District Offensive Player of the Year as a running back. Verbanic immediately saw many of Brandon’s strengths in Evan.
“Physically, he’s extremely strong,” Verbanic said. “He has great core strength, so his balance as a running back is very, very good. ... He was also a very, very good receiver, and I know that helps in the NFL. I think he’s going to prove his worth, and I think he’ll get a lot of chances this year.”
These days Royster is working to become the player who will distract defenses from someone else’s talent. With defenses bound to focus on the abilities of Griffin, the Redskins need a running game to ease some of the pressure bearing down on the rookie quarterback. No one understands that better than Royster, who already has been blown away by Griffin.
“He just adds a whole new dimension to the game,” Royster said. “We ran down to the end zone towards the end of practice. Me and London [Fletcher] were running towards the play right next to each other, and I was like, ‘Damn, he’s fast.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Yep.’”
In Royster’s eyes, winning football games always will trump team personnel issues. Avenging last year’s last place finish in the NFC East drives the team’s running backs more than competition for the starting job.
“We all want each other to do well,” Royster said. “If it takes somebody starting over somebody else, that’s what it takes. We all want to be the primary back, but at the end of the day we all just want to win.”