A year ago, Westfield running back Evan Royster found success running the ball for two reasons: 1) his ability to break a tackle at the line of scrimmage or break away from defenders in the open field; and 2) opposing defenses' knowledge that they had much more to worry about than just him.
This season, reason No. 2 no longer applies, mostly because the two All-Mets Royster played with have graduated. But the junior running back still can rely on reason No. 1, and despite being the focus of every defense Westfield faces, he is averaging 217 rushing yards per game for the undefeated Bulldogs -- and he's now playing defense as well.
Royster, playing both ways for the first time since the eighth grade, leads the Virginia AAA Northern Region in rushing through seven games with 1,516 yards on 176 carries, just 207 yards short of his 13-game total from last season. And his 22 touchdowns match last year's output. The fourth-ranked Bulldogs, who host No. 20 Oakton (6-1, 2-0 Concorde District) in a pivotal game tonight, are 7-0, 2-0 despite the graduation of their two All-Mets, quarterback Sean Glennon and wide receiver Eddie Royal, both now at Virginia Tech.
"The biggest difference this year for Evan is he's playing defensive back," said Coach Tom Verbanic, whose Bulldogs carry a 21-game winning streak into tonight's homecoming game. "We're also giving him about 30 carries a game. He's had to shoulder more of the load this year, that's for sure."
The 6-foot, 190-pound Royster doesn't look at playing both ways as a burden, but rather as a challenge.
"It's been a rough adjustment because I have to learn all the offensive and defensive plays every week," he said. "But I'm a team leader, so I'm doing my best to help the team any way I can. Even though my teammates teased me at first [about playing defense], I like it."
He's especially proud of a few hard hits he's laid on opponents while playing defensive back. One in particular stood out: early in the second half of Westfield's 30-21 victory over rival Centreville two weeks ago, Royster lowered his shoulder on Wildcats running back D.J. Thornton, picked him up and drove him back.
Although Royster has made a significant impact on defense, his highlight reel still is mostly filled with long, zigzagging runs, the kind he'll need to make tonight against Oakton and standout linebacker Cody Grimm. Royster has rushed for more than 200 yards four times, more than 300 once, and his lowest output was 155 yards on 25 carries against Herndon last week. Those are the kinds of numbers that worry Oakton Coach Joe Thompson.
"He's beaten everyone they've played," Thompson said of Royster. "He's the perfect combination running back. He's fast. He breaks tackles, he cuts back and he catches the ball. He has no weakness."
Directions: From I-66, exit at Route 28 North. Turn left on Westfields Blvd. Turn right on Stonecroft Blvd. The school is on the left past Old Lee Road.