Great Expectations for Royster

Now a proven commodity at tailback, the redshirt junior looks to take his game to the next level. He believes he is up to the challenge.

Beaver Stadium's south tunnel was crowded with the usual array of well-wishers and hangers-on as Penn State's players vacated the field after Saturday afternoon's Blue-White Game.

Most of the team had already made its way to the locker room. Joe Paterno had been driven past, on a golf cart.

But where was Evan Royster?

A few other players made their way through the throng. Freshman quarterback Kevin Newsome. Senior QB Daryll Clark. Senior wide receiver James McDonald.

And then, finally, Royster.

He had emerged from the pack long before that, overcoming even the doubts of his head coach to become the feature back for the Nittany Lions in 2008. His 1,236 yards rushing (6.5 per carry) were the most ever by a PSU sophomore, and the 10th-highest single-season total in school history. He is also the Big Ten's top returning rusher.

With all that come the requisite expectations.

“There was some responsibility on me last year, but this year there's definitely responsibility for me to come out and play well,” he said. “You can't afford to be taking plays off. There's definitely some responsibility on me that there wasn't last year.”

And as one of the team's leaders, he said, “I need to show my confidence. Last year I would still get butterflies going into some games, and I would be nervous. But this year I just can't have that. You've got to kind of lead the team out there and make sure nobody else is feeling the jitters.”

Royster carried just three times for 21 yards for the Blue, which lost 21-16 to the White. He also fielded some punts (but did not return them, as is customary in this scrimmage). It is a role he was asked to assume midway through spring drills, and one he has not filled since he was a senior at Westfield High in Fairfax, Va.

“I don't know if they're necessarily going to keep me doing it during the game, but it's kind of exciting, getting a chance to do it again,” he said. “There's definitely an adjustment, but once you're out there for a practice or two, doing it, it comes back.”

No less an authority than Paterno once assumed that Royster would spend his entire career doing such menial chores, and little more.

“If you had asked me last year if Royster would be this good,” the coach said during his weekly conference call last Oct. 21, “I would say he doesn't have quite the stuff. But he's turned out to be a heck of a good tailback.”

Royster neither saw nor heard the quote at first. His mom did.

“I looked at it and I was like, 'Whoa, I didn't know he felt that way,' ” he said. “I kind of had to go out there and show him I could be an every-down guy.”

Nonetheless, Royster added, “I still feel like I'm trying to win him over. The great thing about him is that nothing's good enough. He always thinks you should be better. That's why he's such a good coach.”

Clark, who called Royster “Mr. Smooth,” said the back first turned heads the second week of last season, when he rushed 17 times for 141 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-14 rout of Oregon State.

“The way he was running and making guys miss,” Clark said, “I knew he was going to be our back and he was going to make a lot of plays for us in key situations, and he's done that. We're really excited to have him back, and I know he's going to have a breakout year.”

And then some. Royster recovered quickly after spraining his left knee in the Rose Bowl loss to USC. And while it will take time to adjust to the new-look offensive line, he fully expects to do so.

In short, he has emerged from the pack, only to find himself on the spot.

But as Clark said, “Now that he knows he's the man, he's really going to step up.”

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