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Penn State Football: For Royster, Lean On Me

by on January 13, 2010 7:41 AM

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Only four days earlier, on Oct. 6, 2007, Evan Royster had his coming out party. In just his sixth game as a redshirt freshman, the running back rushed 16 times for 86 yards.

Penn State beat Iowa 27-7 in Beaver Stadium that day -- yes, that does happen on occasion -- as Royster broke a string of four zero-yardage games following a teasing season-opener against Florida International, when he ran for 70 yards and a touchdown in his first game as a Nittany Lion.

So there Royster sat that Wednesday, at the head table next to the stage at the State College Quarterback Club’s weekly luncheon in Beaver Stadium. Suit, tie, quiet and respectful demeanor.

At his table were Lion legend Jimmy Cefalo, on campus to receive the prestigious Alumni Fellow Award, and his wife, Janice. The Cefalos’ brother-in-law, Fran Ganter, and nephew, Jason Ganter, were also seated at Royster’s table.

Royster didn’t say much.

“I felt pretty good on Saturday,” he said when asked about his breakout game that resulted in a Quarterback Club invitation. Translation: I gained 5.4 yards per carry, was on the field for 41 plays and had nearly double the carries I accumulated in the first five games. See.

How’s your leg? “Feels fine.” Translation: I can’t tell you.

“I played some lacrosse in high school.” Translation: Thirty-three goals as a senior and my team was a three-time district champion in Virginia.

“Yes sir.” Translation: Yes sir.

Royster’s back was by the steps to the stage. When the ceremonies started, he would have turn 180 degrees to watch. But before he did, Joe Paterno first had to make his way up the steps. Joe schmoozed the table a bit, greeting the Cefalos, then headed to the steps. To make his way, he steadied himself by placing a hand on the shoulders of his young ballplayer.

Paterno has been leaning on Royster ever since.

Royster ran for 356 more yards in 2007, including 126 against Purdue (his first 100-yard game), to finish with 513 yards rushing on 82 carries, with a terrific 6.3 yards per carry average.

In 2008, Royster added 1,236 more yards on 191 carries, with 12 touchdowns. It was the 10th best single-season rushing performance in PSU history. His average carry was a trademark 6.5 yards. Twice he ran for 141 yards, and in his best performance as a Nittany Lion he ran for 174 yards against Michigan. And he caught 17 passes for 155 yards.

In 2009, Royster rushed for 1,169 yards, second-highest in the Big Ten, on 205 carries for a 5.7-yard average. He ran for six touchdowns and had two TD catches among his 16 receptions for 187 yards as he frequently lined up in the slot.

With Royster as a starter, Penn State is 22-4. And the Nittany Lions are 12-0 when he breaks 100 yards.

With quarterback Daryll Clark gone, only to be replaced by someone in the firm of Newsome Brackett McGloin Jones & Bolden, the return of Royster in 2010 was imperative. He is one of only five starters to come back on offense.

Paterno and Galen Hall, the team’s running backs coach and the offensive coordinator, need to lean on Royster again. In fact, now more than ever.

Royster, who enrolled in Penn State in 2006 but did not play as a freshman, considered declaring for the NFL. But he never got to the point where he officially pursued what his draft day chances were. Conventional wisdom is that he was a third- or fourth-round pick. No big money there, that’s for sure.

“I wanted to return to finish my degree and for my final year at Penn State,” Royster said. “I’m looking forward to next season.”

Those were Royster’s comments as part of a carefully constructed Penn State football release. It will be a long while, at least until March when access to the Penn State players will be provided as spring drills start, 'til we get more.

Based on his comments after games in 2009, Royster’s full story will be a lot more interesting. If he chooses to share it.

That’s the way he is.

Let me explain. Postgames with Royster went like this:

Ten, maybe 15 reporters surrounded him. Royster gave quiet, bland and unemotional responses. Many a reporter stood there for two or four minutes, only to hear the Royster finesse his way through a dozen questions, rarely offering anything that would pass for stunning insight.

His core interview style is like running style -- close to the ground, unspectacular, shifty, deceptive.

He’s Mr. Nuance.

“He's a good, solid, all around back,” Paterno said in the late season. “He's not flashy. He's consistent. He knows what's going on. He can do everything you want him to do. He blocks well enough. He's a really good receiver and he's intelligent. If we put something in on a Monday, we don't have to worry about whether he can handle it or not.”

Royster’s a very smart guy. A management information systems major, with a brother who played football at Stanford. Nary an umm, like or ah. He’ll politely look you in the eye and say nothing as well as any bureaucrat.

Translation: “I can keep this up longer than you can wait.”

And, for the most part, Royster can. But if you wait him out, listen and nod and write down bland quotations that will never see print, Royster will reward the stray and patient reporter for sticking with him after the media hordes depart.

Given the right time (15 minutes into his interview) and circumstance (one or two familiar reporters in a dark corner), Royster will up and reveal his true thoughts about a game, his teammates, himself.

There was this: “The coaches can change some things for us individually. Some of the players have an identity. But as a unit we do not.”

And this: “The (offensive line) had been babying it a bit and taking time to set things up. They were staying on their block for three or four seconds on a six-second play. Today, they blocked for six or seven seconds.”

During the season he also questioned some of the play-calling and the lack of consistent blocking. Cogent analysis and true.

It’s pretty clear those opinions filtered back to Paterno. Near season’s end, the coach publicly castigated Royster for his attitude. It was a fairly rare occurrence, Joe calling out a veteran and valuable player.

“I got on Royster a little bit either last week or two weeks ago,” Paterno said prior to the Michigan State game. “I said, ‘Hey, you’re not playing with a lot of enthusiasm like you have (earlier in season).”

He was steady, that’s for sure. From the Temple game through the Michigan State game, Royster ran for 94 yards or more eight of 10 times.

Like his teammates, he was at his worst in losses against Iowa (69 yards) and Ohio State (36 yards). Those numbers were more of a reflective of the failings of his teammates along the offensive line than himself.

Now, with the departure of offensive tackle Dennis Landolt, the team’s top lineman in 2009, the top two tight ends (Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler), and Ako Poti, who came on midseason to start eight games, Royster’s burden in carrying the offense is even greater.

His motivation is great. Remarkably, he has amassed 2,918 rushing yards on 478 carries in three seasons -- really two-and-a-half given that he had five games with eight or fewer yards rushing in his rookie campaign.

If Royster’s 6.1-yard career rushing average continues, he’ll need just 79 carries to become Penn State’s alltime leading rusher. He would pass Curt Warner at the top spot, with 3,398 yards, with remarkable efficiency. Over four seasons, Warner needed 649 carries to set the record. Royster would need 100 or so less (547, to be precise), carrying on at his projected pace.

Numbers-wise, Royster needs 481 yards to pass Warner. Right now, he is eighth on the list. On his way to Warner, Royster will pass Lydell, L.J., D.J., Enis, Blair Thomas and Hunt.

Barring injury, it’s a lock.

And he’ll do it under the radar, basically, his career having taken on somewhat of a stealth nature. Kinda quiet, a bit misunderstood. It speaks for itself, because mostly Royster will not.

But if you look carefully, and take the time to truly listen, Royster’s run to the record will speak volumes. Especially now that Paterno really must lean on him one final time.

ACADEMIC ACCOLADES FOR THE NITTANY LIONS

Penn State finished the season 11-2 and ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll. In the classroom and on graduation day, the Nittany Lions did even better. In 2009, they were:

No. 1 for both Graduation Success Rate (85 percent) and federal graduation rate (89 percent) among teams ranked in the final 2009 Associated Press Top 25 poll.

No. 1 in the Academic BCS standings, based on the graduation rate and Academic Progress Rates (APR) of the 25 teams in the final Bowl Championship Series standings. Penn State earned a score of 126.0, followed by Stanford (113).

No. 1 for Academic Progress Rate and No. 2 for Graduation Success Rate among the 28 teams that played in a New Year’s bowl game.

No. 1 for first team ESPN The Magazine Academic All-Americans, with five, among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

No. 6 among the 68 bowl squads for Graduation Success Rate, trailing only Northwestern’s 92 percent figure among the teams in a January bowl game.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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