It’s been a long time coming for Evan Royster, but it was just another day at the office for the offensive line.
The Redskins may have lost to the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, but it also marked the fifth straight game in which Washington has gained at least 100 net yards rushing – a sign that Mike Shanahan’s vaunted ground game may be ready to take flight.
The flavor of the week in the backfield was Royster, who became the second rookie back to draw a start this season for Washington. He didn’t disappoint, gaining 132 yards on 19 carries, making him the third different Redskins running back to turn in a 100-yard effort in 2011.
Part of that success has to be attributed to the offensive line. A motley collection of castoffs and no-namers is beginning to resemble the Shanahan outfits of old – you know, the ones that cranked out 1,000-yard rushers by the barrel-full.
But Royster’s big day wasn’t simply a product of good blocking. On Saturday, the rookie from Penn State played with the same combination of power and elusiveness that propelled him to the top of the Nittany Lions’ all-time rushing list, and it was enough to help him reach the century mark in his first NFL start.
“We came out pretty strong,” Royster said. “When you start out like that, the rhythm comes pretty quick…Once you get going, it’s hard to stop.”
Royster wasn’t going down easy all day, and his breakout performance made the grind of an early season stint on the practice squad worth it. Being left off the final 53-man roster at the beginning of the year certainly stung, but Royster maintained his focus and practiced each week for an opportunity that may or may not have ever arrived.
Luckily it did.
“I never thought that I would start a game this year, to be honest,” he said. “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.”
After a late November promotion to the active roster, Royster received a handful of carries through four games. With Helu sidelined on Saturday due to injuries, Royster had the backfield to himself and ran with it – literally and figuratively.
“Yeah, I kind of got broken in pretty slowly, and it’s been good for me,” he said. “It’s helped me get more comfortable with the game and playing at this speed.”
His progression each passing week hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s got to feel good about his performance,” said Mike Shanahan. “Mentally, he’s very on top of his game, especially for a young player.”
That mental aspect will be a key element in what looks to be a fierce competition for carries among running backs in 2012. Helu, Royster and Tim Hightower all experienced success this season, and if history is any indicator Shanahan won’t play favorites – rather he’ll go with the hot hand, meaning production is everything.
And if Royster can build upon an outstanding debut, then that’s not a bad thing.
“Hopefully the coaches see that I’m ready to come in and get some more time and get more carries,” Royster said. “That’s what I want, but that’s their decision.”