Roy Helu Jr. averaged 4.4 yards a carry in his preseason debut. (Mark Zaleski/Associated Press)

RICHMOND – As he came away from the Redskins’ preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday, Coach Mike Shanahan expressed encouragement over the performances of running backs Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster.

Each back averaged an effective 4.4 yards per carry against Tennessee. Helu, who got the start, gained 57 yards on 13 carries, while Royster rushed for 62 yards on 14 carries.

“I was really impressed,” Shanahan said. “It was nice to see Roy do a good job. I thought he handled himself well. I thought Royster did a great job when he was in there. I’ve got to take a look at film, but my initial thoughts were I’m very impressed with both.”

Both entering their third NFL seasons, Helu and Royster are vying for the No. 2 running back spot behind Alfred Morris. Morris rushed for a franchise-record 1,613 yards on 335 carries last season and is firmly entrenched as the team’s starter. But the Redskins hope to settle on an effective backup in an effort to lighten his load.

Each has a different style. While Morris is a bruising runner, Helu excels because of his speed and big-play ability. His receiving skills also make him an effective third-down back. Royster, meanwhile, is a smoother runner, has good field vision and picks up yards in chunks. The Redskins must decide which, paired with Morris, makes their offense more complete.

Thursday’s performances – in which Helu displayed what he can do when healthy after missing the bulk of last season with injuries to his toe and Achilles’ tendon, and Royster appeared more confident, not only as a runner, but in blocking – would seem to indicate improvement for the Redskins’ running back corps.

Two years ago, Tim Hightower was lost for the season and the team lacked an effective every-down back and had go with a committee to get the job done. Last season, Morris emerged as the workhorse, but Washington lacked effective depth behind him.

Now, with Helu, Royster, Keiland Williams (who added two carries for 11 yards Thursday) and rookies Chris Thompson (a speed threat who didn’t play Thursday) and Jawan Jamison (a thick, one-cut-and-go back who also didn’t play Thursday), the Redskins seem to have plenty of options to choose from.

“It’s a good thing. It’s fun,” Royster said of the crowded backfield. “It makes the game more fun because you’re out there trying your hardest and everyone’s giving their best, so it makes the team better.”

Helu, who hadn’t played since the third game of last season, described Thursday’s outing as encouraging. Despite receiving a limited workload, he felt good about the rhythm he settled into, and how his feel for the game returned quickly.

“I felt fine the whole time. There wasn’t too much rust,” Helu said. “Going into the game, and watching film of Tennessee, I had a feeling they’d extend our wide zone plays, so that was to be expected. But you could definitely see that as we run, run, run, we get a rhythm and kept them off balance and we were able to get running lanes before we had to get all the way to the sideline.”

He later added: “I’ve definitely tried to make it more of a point to use my eyes and let them direct where I go a lot more. So, definitely practice, for me, helps me be more patient.”

Royster also felt encouraged by his first outing of the preseason.

“It felt good,” he said. “In practice, guys tag up, or wrap and you just run through [rather than tackle], but there’s nothing like actually playing football. Just small things [to work on]: working on some cut blocks and things. We haven’t been cutting people in practice, but we’ll be able to work on it some more in the preseason.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Shanahan divides snaps in the next preseason outing. Morris, like several other starters, didn’t play Thursday. Thompson and Jamison could see action.

Helu and Royster appear to have a leg up on the competition as of now, however. Helu could be the ideal change-of-pace back because of the home-run threat he poses. Royster, meanwhile, could be a more ideal option if Morris were injured because of his steady style. Soon, we’ll see how the other backs fit into the equation.

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