RICHMOND — When he thinks about the nature of the Redskins’ burgeoning running back competition, fourth-year veteran Evan Royster has taken to comforting himself with an oft-repeated mantra of preseason football.
“The saying goes, ‘You can’t make the club in the tub,’” Royster said Monday. “I think it gives me an opportunity to come out here and get some extra reps, and hopefully go into the next game with a little more confidence and a little bit more drive.”
Royster is one of six running backs with the Redskins this summer who are vying for what may be as few as three spots on the initial 53-man roster. He is also fortunate in that he’s the only one outside of anointed starter Alfred Morris not coping with some type of injury.
Roy Helu, whose grasp on the No. 2 spot looks virtually as strong as the one Morris has on the top job, banged up one of his knees in the preseason victory over New England on Thursday — though he hasn’t yet missed time. Chris Thompson, who has weathered major injuries over each of the last three seasons, had to bow out with an ankle injury after seven plays against the Patriots and is expected to miss another week.
Even the two rookies — Lache Seastrunk and the undrafted Silas Redd — have experienced ailments that have hampered their shot of making the team. Seastrunk has been hampered with soreness in the arch of one of his feet, while Redd has missed two consecutive days of training camp with an ankle sprain of his own.
For Seastrunk, a sixth-round draft pick out of Baylor, missing practice is akin to not doing his job. Though the inflammation has raged for nearly a week, Seastrunk, too, wants to take advantage of the snaps gained with Thompson and Redd out of commission.
“No matter what we’re gonna go through — rain, sleet or hail — I’m going to do everything I can to play,” Seastrunk said. “I’ve just got to tough it out. It’s not killing me. I’m still running. I’m still gonna do what I’m gonna do. I’ve got to show them I’m tough.”
Coach Jay Gruden made it clear early in training camp that ideally, the Redskins would proceed through the season with three running backs. Morris, second in rushing yards only to Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson over his first two seasons, is unquestionably the top guy.
He’s not, however, an every-down back. While he has improved in pass protection, Morris still struggles as a receiver — and Gruden is hoping to incorporate an additional element into the offense by having his backs catch passes out of the backfield.
“I think the biggest thing is, for us, we’re a team that’s a West Coast system, and it’s progressions, it’s one, two, three, bang,” said running backs coach Randy Jordan. “We’ve got to have guys that can catch the ball in space and turn and run and make a guy miss and get you that extra five or six yards. … I think the system really fits a guy that can catch the ball on the swings and on the screen routes particularly well.”
Helu assumed the role as the Redskins’ third-down back last season, finishing with nearly as many receiving yards (251) as rushing yards (274). Morris, meanwhile, has caught only 20 passes during his entire career — though he did have four grabs in his Pro Bowl appearance in January.
Seastrunk, who rushed 158 times as a junior last season, did not catch the ball a single time and had just nine catches during his collegiate career. Clocked at 4.51 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in February, Seastrunk’s speed was among the reasons why the Redskins drafted him.
He’s had to not only figure out how to run routes, but how to better recognize if the team is playing in zone coverage or man-to-man and what that means once he gets the ball in his hands.
“It was [a challenge] at first, in OTAs and rookie camp, but now, I’ve got a grasp of it,” Seastrunk said. “I know what’s going on. I know what to run. I know how to run it. I’ve still got to work on a couple things, but everything — Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’m still building my foundation, and I’m not trying to take a brick out so my house falls in on me.”
Royster, who finished his rookie season in 2011 with consecutive 100-yard games, gained just 88 rushing yards a year later and had two carries for no gain last season. Still, he believes that his experience — primarily, his mental approach — sets him apart.
And, so far, his durability.
“Either [the coaches are] going to love you or not,” Royster said. “I think it’s about where you fit in the scheme. It’s not about trying to change yourself as a player, because they have us here for a reason: to see what they need on this team. I just want to go out and do what I do and show them that I can be a factor on this team.”