Penn State's career rushing leader didn't feel very appreciated early this season, but Evan Royster bounced back to enjoy a solid second half to silence many critics.
"This was the first time I've had to deal with it, really," Royster said of the criticism. "It was tough at first, but once I got over it, it was all good."
The record-setting running back is now looking to add one more first to his resume in the Outback Bowl. He has 916 yards rushing and needs 84 against Florida to become the first Nittany Lion with three 1,000-yard seasons.
Mirror photos by Patrick?Waksmunski
Evan?Royster can become the first Penn State running back with three 1,000-yard seasons.
"I want to end my career on a good note, and better to end with a win," Royster said. "I think if I can play well it will help my team. It's definitely important for me to come out and have a good game."
Both for the present and the future.
"I've heard about NFL scouts being there and stuff, but that's not the main thing on my mind," Royster said. "I just want to come out and help my team get a win."
Royster made news for the wrong reasons in the preseason as he gained about 12 pounds and showed up to camp looking a little pudgy. He then got off to a rough start with 35, 32 and 33 yards the first three games, respectively.
Regardless of whether he actually was sluggish and slower or just appeared that way because everyone knew he had put on the extra weight, he clearly wasn't the same runner as the past two seasons.
He wasn't getting much help at all from his inexperienced offensive line, but that didn't stop critics from piling on Royster.
"I kind of just tell myself not to listen to the stuff people say and just come out and play my game and forget about what everybody is saying," Royster said. "People are gonna talk bad about you, and it is something you've got to deal with because if you let it get to you, you're gonna start playing worse."
He has said repeatedly the criticism didn't get to him but that it did bother his family.
"It was tough because it hurt my family so much," Royster said. "My mom was talking about it, my dad was talking about it. Just the fact that it was affecting them kind of hurt my feelings that they took such offense to it.
"It kind of just gave me a little bit of a drive to play better so that they didn't have to be hurt by it."
It didn't help Royster's cause that Joe Paterno seemed perturbed about his extra weight. The coach chose his words carefully when asked about Royster early on, but he continued to stick by his senior and did what he could to motivate him.
"I was seeing the commentary about him somewhere else, and I think people got the idea that I thought he wasn't doing very well," JoePa said early in the season. "I talked to him earlier in the week and said, 'Forget about what everyone is talking about. Just play your game and we'll see what happens.'"
Royster denies that he was ever in JoePa's doghouse.
"He told me to lose weight, and he checked in with me every couple of practices and it would be lower than the number it was before," Royster said. "So I don't think he had any major problems with it."
Royster started playing better in week four with a career-high 187 yards against Temple. He was up and down at times the rest of the season but did have 149 yards against Michigan, 131 against Northwestern and closed the regular season with 85 against Michigan State.
His big day against the Wolverines pushed him past Curt Warner's 28-year-old school career record of 3,398 yards.
"It feels like a monkey off my back," Royster, who now has 3,834 yards, said upon finally breaking the record.
Royster's improved play coincided with a better effort up front from the offensive line, which pass protected well all season but needed time to gel before getting better opening up running lanes.
"I think we've played a lot better up front," Royster said. "As the year went on, they're getting a lot better every day."
All-American guard Stefen Wisniewski said things began to change for the line after a 33-13 loss to Illinois in week six.
"We really got together and weren't happy with the way we were playing and decided we need to change it," Wisniewski said. "Over that bye week and over the next few weeks, I feel like we really kind of started playing at the level that we knew we were capable of."
The line's commitment paid immediate dividends the next game at Minnesota as Royster gained 62 yards on only 10 carries and Silas Redd, the heir apparent to the starting job next season, had 71 yards on nine carries.
"If [the line] can step up and play like they did toward the end of the season, then I think we'll be all right," Royster said of the bowl game.
Royster considered leaving early for the NFL last season but decided to return for his senior year. Despite having a solid career at PSU, there are many questions about how his talents will translate to the NFL.
"We feel that he's a backup NFL caliber running back," Rob Brewer of nfldraftbible.com said. "There's not a lot in terms of quickness. He's got average quickness, average burst. The upside is limited for him."
Brewer doesn't see Royster going before the fourth round.
"I know he has great statistical numbers with Penn State, but I don't think that really translates to the next level," he said.
Royster said he has no regrets with how things played out his senior season or that he decided to come back for one more year. It allowed him to break the PSU career rushing record and to experience and be able to overcome some personal turmoil for the first time.
"I'm not disappointed with it by any means," he said of his season. "I think when I've gotten the opportunity to step up and play well I have. ... I'll look back at it later on and kind of evaluate myself and see what I think. But at this point, I don't have any regrets about it."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.