UNIVERSITY PARK -- Evan Royster should obliterate Penn State's career rushing record this season and may finish with more than 4,000 yards.
He has been, to use Joe Paterno's stock line, a good football player.
But has he been great?
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Penn State running back Evan Royster works out during PSU’s annual Lift for Life Friday in State College.
Even with the impressive numbers -- and breaking a record that's stood for 28 years -- it's difficult to think of Royster as one of the elite running backs in Nittany Lion history.
Not yet anyway.
Consider for yourself: Using the eye test, has Royster been better than any of these backs?: Curt Warner, Ki-Jana Carter, Curtis Enis, Blair Thomas, D.J. Dozier, Larry Johnson, John Cappelletti, Lydell Mitchell, Lenny Moore, Tony Hunt or Matt Suhey?
PSU's best backs
Neil Rudel has covered Penn State football since 1977. Here are the top 10 running backs he's witnessed, and therefore does not include the likes of Lenny Moore, Lydell Mitchell and John Cappelletti -- three who most assuredly would be in PSU's all-time top 10.
1. Curt Warner (1979-82): 3,398 yards -- Once through line, best PSU has had. Cutback artist set single-game mark (256) at Syracuse, but he also had 238 in '81 at Nebraska.
2. Curtis Enis (1995-97): 3,256 yards -- Unlike Warner, played just three seasons. Bull of a tailback, evidenced by 36TDs. He did not have arsenal of Warner (above) or Carter (below).
3. Ki-Jana Carter (1992-94): 2,829 yards -- Also played three only years. Used blazing speed to average 7.2 per career rush, a school record. No. 1 overall pick in 1995.
4. Blair Thomas (1985-87, 89): 3,301 yards -- Came back from ACL surgery to get 1,300-plus in '89 after 1,414 as junior. Workhorse who turned corner better than anyone.
5. Larry Johnson (1999-02): 2,953 yards -- Got 2,087 of them (7.7 per crack) as a senior, his only season as a full-time starter. Rare combination of speed and power but mediocre offense allowed better defenses to stop him.
6. D.J. Dozier (1983-86): 3,227 yards -- Burst on scene as true freshman to have 1,000 yards, but that was his only four-digit season. Shifty but also injury prone.
7. Matt Suhey (1976-79): 2,818 yards -- Tailback in a fullback's body went onto great NFL career. And he was in on third down at the goal line vs. Alabama. Go to the videotape.
8. Tony Hunt (2003-06): 3,320 yards -- Not flashy, but took what the defenses gave, finished runs as well as anyone and wound up No. 2 in yards. Caught between a tailback and a fullback and didn't last in the NFL.
9. Evan Royster (2007-present): 2,918 yards -- Excellent vision and feet and a good receiver, too. Will likely break all-time rushing record, but that's deceiving because he'll have played more games.
10. Jonathan Williams (1980-83): 2,042 yards -- May be the most underrated back in PSU history, having shared the same backfield as both Warner and Dozier.
If not, that means Royster isn't even in the top 10 at PSU. Depending on personal preferences and/or memories, fans may pull two or three former stars out of that list, but that still only leaves the school's soon-to-be rushing leader at the back end of the top 10.
Royster has gained 2,918 yards and needs only 481 to surpass Warner's mark of 3,398 atop the Lions' career list. Still, Royster, who has always been a solid back and has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, has never been a guy who elicited a "Wow!" reaction like many other former PSU standouts did.
He has a chance, with a superb senior season, to change that and make his case for greatness.
Every defense will key on Royster with PSU's inexperience at quarterback, so if he can go off for 1,600 yards and lead the team to 10 or 11 wins, he may be worthy of the top five.
That's pretty much what Mark Ingram did for Alabama last season. The Crimson Tide didn't have much of a passing game, but Ingram carried the load with 1,658 yards and 17 TDs to win the Heisman Trophy.
Paterno recalled a story in the spring about the rushing record and someone asking him to compare Royster and Warner, a 2009 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame.
"These kids are playing a lot more football games," JoePa said. "We're playing 12, 13 games now. So I don't think the stats really are significant in comparing one against the other. I think Royster is a good tailback, and I think he, if he stays healthy, he'll have a big year."
Royster has spent the offseason bulking up to prepare himself to carry more of a load this fall. He put on about 12 pounds -- he's up to 225 -- and figures to be around 218 when the season starts.
"I think it was good for me to add it for now, just to try and build up a little bit and get a little stronger," Royster said Friday at Lift for Life. "I'd like to trim down and get a little more tone [to get] ready for the season."
Royster has started since his sophomore year -- which is why he's been able to move up PSU's career list -- and decided to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft. He said it wasn't a tough decision and noted he never received a potential round for where he may have been drafted from the advisory committee.
He did get some career advice, though.
"Speaking to some people, they were saying that they want to see me get 20-25 carries a game and be able to carry a team like you see a lot of big-time running backs do," Royster said. "Hopefully I'll get a chance to do that this year."
That seems unlikely, and we'll get to why in just a bit.
First off is whether Royster would even be able to handle carrying the ball that many times and remain effective.
He averaged 15.8 carries per game in 2009 and 14.7 in 2008.
"It's a big difference," Royster said of those figures compared to 25. "It's almost doubling the amount of carries you're getting. Even in the past getting between 15 and 20 carries a game, the next day I wake up and I'm beat up.
"Extra weight should help me deal with that. It takes a toll on you, getting that much contact."
And if he's playing heavier?
"It helps you deliver the blow more than taking it," Royster said. "It's just that extra weight to push around. ... There's been times in games where I feel like, with a little bit more weight, I could break that tackle."
Regardless of whether Royster could hold up carrying 25 times a game, that would be a terrible idea for the Penn State offense.
The Lions very well may run a ton to take pressure off Kevin Newsome or Matt McGloin, but the better alternative would be to give Stephfon Green 10-plus carries and up Royster's average to 18 or so.
Green is too talented to carry only six or eight times a game, as he did much of last season. Both he and Royster are good enough catching the ball that it would be exciting to see one in the backfield and the other lined up in the slot about 10 times per game.
"We both can catch the ball out of the backfield, or they can split us out," Royster said. "We've had some experience running routes, and we've done it the past couple years. It's just a matter of doing it in a game a little bit more. We practice it a lot."
Royster should break Warner's career record early in the season thanks to a schedule that includes Youngstown State, Kent State and Temple in the first month.
"It would be awesome," Royster said. "It's something that I'll carry with me my whole life, something I can tell my kids, my grandkids about down the road. Just to be named in the same category as some of those guys, it's a great honor."
Things generally get better with time, and we may not know Royster's true place in Penn State history until years from now.
He probably will hold the rushing record for a long time, and if so, he someday may be given more credit in the great running back discussion.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.