UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Evan Royster is the top returning rusher in the Big Ten Conference, yet he remains one of the most unheralded tailbacks in Penn State history.
The redshirt junior prefers to stay grounded rather than worry about rewriting the school's record books.
But with 1,749 career rushing yards, Royster needs just 1,650 more to top former All-American Curt Warner's school-leading total of 3,398 that has stood since 1982.
"Evan's one of the smoothest players I've ever seen run the football," quarterback Daryll Clark said.
"He's an excellent all-around athlete," coach Joe Paterno said. "I could put Royster over on defense and he'd be a heck of a defensive back."
Royster is 6 feet 1 and weighs just 208 pounds, but he is powerful enough to steamroll an opponent and fast enough to out-run them.
He is tough on his teammates in practice, too.
"He's so smooth, you think you can just go tackle him, and then he lowers his shoulder and he runs you over," free safety Drew Astorino said.
A year ago, Royster was named second-team All-Big Ten and was one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the country's top running back. He rushed for 1,236 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. He also finished fourth on the team in receptions with 17 for 155 yards.
But Royster's season ended on a down note. His left knee was sprained in the first quarter of the Rose Bowl against Southern California, and he did not return.
"I think Royster can do a lot of things well," Paterno said. "He made a lot of big plays [last season], but his biggest problem is he's got to stay durable."
Royster gained 100 or more yards five times last season and his 72 points were the sixth most among non-kickers in the Big Ten. But it wasn't until the 10th game that he carried the ball more than 20 times.
"I always want the ball," said Royster, who produced 513 yards and five touchdowns in 2007. "I want more and more carries."
With the top three wide receivers gone, along with three-fifths of the offensive line, this version of the Nittany Lions' Spread HD offense will revolve around Clark and Royster, who may elect to bypass his senior season next year to enter the NFL draft.
"I try not to go into a season with any expectations," Royster said. "But I do go in with goals. I'm hoping we get another Big Ten championship and, hopefully, earn a trip to the national championship game. We'll see."
Royster, a native of Fairfax, Va., will be the featured tailback, with speedy redshirt sophomore Stephfon Green serving as the backup.
"Stephfon is a great back," Royster said. "We complement each other well. He will push me in practice, but that's OK with me. I kind of like playing with that pressure to perform on my shoulders. It kind of motivates me and makes me want to make sure I don't let anyone down."
Green, who had 578 yards and four touchdowns last year, also was injured in the Rose Bowl and sat out spring drills while recovering from surgery on his right ankle.
"Green can be a really good running back," Paterno said. "Green has got explosive speed. You know, we would have the ability to play Green at tailback and Royster as a slot back. Royster is a good receiver."
Wide receivers Chaz Powell and Derek Moye of Rochester High School helped Royster hone his pass-catching skills in the offseason. Clark worked with Royster, an All-American lacrosse player in high school, on his timing.
"I hope I get to catch some more passes than I did my first two years," Royster said. "We've worked a couple things in where I get to come out of the backfield and even split out some. We'll see if we actually use it in the games."
Clark, a senior co-captain, has no doubt that Royster's reception total will increase.
"He makes a lot of plays for us," Clark said. "And he runs routes just as good as any wideout out here."
In addition to having an expanded role in the passing game, the versatile Royster also may return punts. The coaches strongly are considering using him in that role.
"I haven't done it since high school," Royster said. "I don't know what it's like at the college level. If they want me to do it, I'd be happy to. It's only going to make me a better player."
Ron Musselman can be reached at email@example.com .