Evan Royster had finished his postgame radio interview, stood behind a lectern for the first news conference of his professional career and was one of the last Redskins players to dress in the team’s locker room. He finally pulled out his smartphone and scrolled through a long list of text messages.
“A lot, huh?” he said.
There was a lot to say, and many who wanted to congratulate the rookie following his breakout performance in the Redskins’ 33-26 loss to Minnesota.
Nearly everything about the day was unexpected — improbable even, considering how Royster’s season began. Trapped on the practice squad for nearly three months, Royster learned Saturday morning he’d make his first professional start in place of a banged-up Roy Helu.
Royster took advantage of the opportunity, tallying 132 yards on 19 carries, the most yards posted by a Washington rookie since Reggie Brooks in 1993.
“I never thought that I would start a game this year, to be honest,” said Royster, the team’s sixth-round pick out of Penn State. “But that’s not to say that I wasn’t prepared to. I came in every week, preparing like I was going to play and it ended up paying off.”
In a Redskins season with more lows than highs, the emergence of a pair of young running backs gives offensive coaches at least some hope for the future. Helu topped 100 yards in three of his four starts this season. With Royster’s performance Saturday, Helu and Royster became the first Redskins rookies in franchise history to post 100-yard games in the same season.
“He did a hell of a job,” quarterback Rex Grossman said of Royster. “Our offensive line created a lot of holes, and he hit them real fast. When he gets in there, he just kind of glides to the holes.”
While Royster posted a 28-yard run in the third quarter and a 16-yard gain in the fourth, he felt he really hit his stride in the second quarter. Grossman kept feeding him the ball, and by halftime, he had 48 yards on nine carries.
“Any time you average nearly seven yards a carry against a defense that has been doing very good against the run, you feel like you’ve had a great day,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s got to feel good about his performance. . . . As he gets more experience and feels more comfortable with himself and this system, I think you’ll see him get better and better.”
Royster is a Chantilly native who played his high school ball at Westfield, where he was the 2005 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year. He had plenty of family and friends in attendance at FedEx Field for a performance even he didn’t expect. Released after the preseason and signed to the practice squad, Royster had a lot of ground to make up in the early weeks of the season.
When Tim Hightower went on injured reserve in October, the Redskins opted against promoting Royster to the 53-man roster, instead claiming Tashard Choice off waivers. Finally, when Choice didn’t work out, Royster was added to the active squad on Nov. 22.
With Helu fueling the team’s ground game, Royster’s opportunities were few. He had only one carry in his professional debut at Seattle, and none the following week against the New York Jets. But he had 44 yards on six carries against New England and 36 on 10 carries in the Redskins’ win over the New York Giants. In that game, Helu suffered injuries to his toe and knee. Helu was limited in practice all week, which meant that for the first time all year, Royster received the majority of the reps with the first-team offense.
“It's hard to explain — there’s not one thing you have to get used to,” Royster said. “It’s the whole thing. You have to be able to react on the fly, and I think running with the first team has really helped me get used to that.”
With only one game remaining in the season, Royster has now impressed coaches both in practice and in game situations. It could prompt some difficult decisions about the Washington backfield before next season.
In his first action since Nov. 20, running back Ryan Torain had only eight yards on four carries Saturday and doesn’t seem to fit in the team’s long-term plans. Hightower will be a free agent this offseason, and both Helu and Royster will be back competing for a second season.
“Hopefully the coaches see that as I’m ready to come in and get some more time, and get some more carries. That’s what I want, but that’s their decision,” Royster said. “Roy is still a great back, and even Tim, when he gets back, there is going to be a lot of competition in this spot and hopefully we can all contribute.”