This was a preseason of attrition for Washington Redskins running backs. Tim Hightower wasn't 100 percent after knee surgery last fall, Roy Helu Jr. missed time with sore Achilles tendons and Evan Royster felt soreness in his right knee.
All of a sudden, rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris was the starter, at least in the third exhibition game. By the fourth, the Redskins' game program featured all four running backs on the cover. Morris has done a lot to improve running back coach Bobby Turner's bunch and give the veterans a little more to worry about.
"Motivate us? He keeps us accountable, yeah, for sure," Helu said. "Our motivation is definitely something higher than that, even with Alfred, and as a group we are very purpose-filled and purpose-driven."
They don't have a choice. Competition is fierce as Hightower, Helu, Royster and Morris want to be in the starting lineup Week 1 at the New Orleans Saints.
If totally healthy, Hightower figures to be the favorite, but he's coming off a torn ACL in his left knee suffered in October. He appeared in just one preseason game, rushing five times for 28 yards.
"The guy is as physical as anybody I've ever been around. He is coming off an ACL, and it takes time," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said recently. "We've been very slow with him, we're not asking him to do too much. We'll take time with him to get him back, but when you've got a guy who does work like he does and is furious like he is, and it's as important to him as it is, I do think it's a matter of time. I hope it's sooner than later, but you never know when it's coming with the ACL."
Morris shouldered the load with Helu and Royster banged up, but Wednesday night was a showcase for Helu. The 23-year-old fumbled on his first carry midway through the first quarter but turned it on just about immediately after. He finished with 15 carries for 90 yards, two touchdowns and a couple of catches for good measure.
Helu, who has missed significant practice time with his sore Achilles tendons, was grateful for the opportunity to play.
"It felt good. I'm real thankful. I won't forget what God did for me through these past three weeks; it's been very humbling," he said. "It was good to get out there. Just throwing my heart out there."
Helu felt rust but shook it off quickly, particularly in regard to his acceleration. In this running back competition, he can't miss a step for fear of Royster or Morris taking over.
Morris showed earlier in the preseason he could do that, and Royster didn't do poorly Wednesday, either, rushing for a touchdown and 44 yards. He and Helu were part of the passing game, which could help them in this battle.
"I don't know; you'll have to ask what they want out of a back," Helu said. "I think it helps with being a more complete back, and I know that's what we all strive to be in perfection for what coach Turner wants."
In a perfect world, all four running backs are healthy and one emerges as a workhorse as the others provide depth and versatility. So far, injuries have made it running back by committee; rookie Tristan Davis even hurt his right knee against the Buccaneers.
With the Redskins resting their starters (and both Hightower and Morris), they ran with Helu and Royster.
"I'll be honest with you, we had so many guys go down, there were only a couple of guys left, and at the end, Roy was not 100 percent going into the game," coach Mike Shanahan said. "But I thought he gathered a little steam and played extremely well and then that last quarter, we had one man left at running back."
The healthiest of the group, Morris could be in line to be the first man up next week. But just because the preseason's over, that doesn't mean the competition is.
Roster spots are likely secure for Hightower, Helu, Morris and Royster, but not much beyond that is certain.
"I have no clue what will happen, but whoever's going to be out there, we still got to compete throughout [next] week to see who will be able to do what and what they want on that field for New Orleans," Helu said.
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