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By Sean Fitz
Blue White Illustrated
A year ago, Evan Royster found himself surrounded by a small collection of reporters at Penn State's annual preseason Media Day. Then a redshirt sophomore, Royster fielded the routine questions about the approach in his first year as starter, his goals for the season and his thoughts on who would be handing him the ball that season.
He answered each question with his typical simple candor, toeing the party line on most issues, and repeatedly said how excited he was for the season to start.
Then came the question that he knew was looming.
"What about Stephfon Green?"
Despite never registering a carry in a regular season game, Green, Royster's backup, seemed to already be on the verge of stardom. Most of that could be credited to a sparkling high school highlight tape and an electric performance in the 2008 Blue-White game, in which he scored on a 57-yard touchdown run the first time he touched the ball and upstaged Royster with an all-around better day.
Green, it seemed, had already supplanted Royster as the starter, at least in the minds of some fans, and it was just a matter of time before his was the Lions' feature back.
"It didn't bother me," said Royster. "But it definitely gave me kind of a little bit of fire to keep playing and to show people that I can be that kind of guy, too."
Royster responded the best way he knew how, and 1,236 yards, 12 touchdowns and one giant chip on his shoulder later, the buzz surrounding his backup had been silenced. The Nittany Lions' unquestioned No. 1 back is now a preseason All-American candidate in 2009.
Together with Green, who wasn't too shabby as a backup last year, finishing second on the team in rushing with 578 yards and four touchdowns, as well as averaging nearly 18 yards per catch on 15 receptions, the pair combines to form the best returning backfield in the Big Ten. In fact, Green would probably be the No. 1 guy at a number of other Big Ten schools this fall.
With all-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark returning to take the snaps, the Lions feature a three-headed monster that should keep defensive coordinators up at night.
"We have that kind of confidence and swagger, including Daryll in this, and we have the attitude that no matter which running back you put back there, we feel that we are the best in the Big Ten," said Green. "That's how you have to go out there and play the game, you have to go out there and think that nobody can tackle you, nobody can get by your blocks. Me and Evan have had the conversation that we need to go out there and play the way we know how, the way we've been playing."
But production for Penn State's top two backs comes in different personalities. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Royster has established himself as the quiet, unassuming, workmanlike machine, while the 5-10, 197-pound Green has made his mark as a blazing fast, smooth talking, highlight maker.
According to Green, Royster's ability to do it all, and make it look easy in the process, makes him the quintessential Penn State back.
"To me, I just call him 'Mr. Everything.' He's so smooth in everything he does," said Green, who watched Royster rack up a 6.5 yards per carry average last season. "There's very few flaws in his game at running back. To tell you the truth, I can't think of one.
"He's a complete back, he can catch, he can run, he can block, he's just smart at what he does, and it's good to have that person in front of you to motivate you because it motivated you to want to be like that. You see his success and you want to get that success that he's had."
Royster, a native of Chantilly, Va., enters the season as a candidate for several national awards, including being on the watch list for the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award and the Doak Walker Award, which is presented to the nation's top running back. He has also been named to preseason All-American teams by Athlon Sports, the Sporting News and in Phil Steele's College Football Preview.
While the preseason accolades are nice, Royster said, his goal for this year, much like him, is fairly simple.
"I'm pretty much set on trying to be better than last year," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to do a little better than I did last year. I've been working out pretty hard in the offseason to get better, so we'll have to see what happens."
Green, from the Bronx, counters with an infusion of speed that can be a knockout change of pace from Royster's patient, flowing running style.
"Just the fact that he's got, obviously, all the speed in the world, and a lot of people underestimate his strength (make him a formidable back)," said Royster. "He runs hard, and he's a great back because he runs through arm tackles just like any good back should. It's hard to say, you know, he works hard, he's got that fiery drive in him where he just doesn't want to stop. Just the desire to be a good player is enough to take him to great levels."
Both backs also enter 2009 with some unfinished business from the end of last season. Both players were forced to leave the field with injuries at the Rose Bowl in January. Royster suffered a left knee injury after carrying the ball just six times in the first quarter, and did not return.
Green filled in admirably, piling up 124 all-purpose yards in his place, but dislocated his ankle in the fourth quarter, an injury which required surgery and months of rehab.
His brief stint as the No. 1 back not only gave him valuable experience on the big stage, but also gave him the confidence of knowing that he could be depended on in the clutch.
"I'm going to come into camp and try to challenge him for that starting role, but I'm a team player, so if I don't get that starting role, I look for my role to be bigger," said Green. "I think my coaches trust me more and things like that.
"I've just been working hard so if Evan does go down again, I can step in and be that guy. I'm happy with the role I had last year. I wasn't as experienced as Evan, so hopefully this year I can challenge him and give him a run for his money."
Green missed the entire spring thanks to his ankle injury, but is back to 100 percent this fall, and is more than happy to be playing second fiddle to Royster, as long as the Nittany Lions are winning.
"I just roll with the punches. In high school, I started off as a little fish in a big pond, then you roll up and adjust to being the guy," said Green. "My role has to be the No. 2 guy, and right now, I'm going to take it. As long as I'm playing football on Saturdays, I'm happy.
"As long as my team can see a repeat of what happened last year, or even take it a step further, to a national championship, then I can feel good about where the coaches have me at and what role I can play in the offense."
If the Lions look to get back to California following the season, whether it be for another Rose Bowl appearance or for the BCS National Championship Game, which will also be played in Pasadena, on Jan. 7, it certainly has the horses in the backfield to do so.
"I think we're going into it looking for another championship. That's what we want to do, that's what the goal is from the outset. We're just trying to work towards that right now," said Royster. "We say it every time we walk off the field, after our workouts and stuff. We believe in ourselves, we believe we can get there, it's what we're hoping to do."
Or, in the words of his more colorful backup.
"Back to L.A. it is," said Green. "If everything works out, back to L.A. it is."
BWI Presents: The 2009 Preseason Football Issue - Part II
Welcome to the second part Blue White Illustrated's annual preseason football issue!
Check out our issue preview below, then head over to BlueWhiteOnline.com to read the entire issue, FREE!
Don't forget, Blue White Illustrated magazine subscribers can read an exact duplicate of the magazine they'll receive in the mail, only 24 hours after the magazine prints.
That's right, on the Monday morning following the game, you can read the magazine cover-to-cover, before it arrives in the mail!
Here's a look at the second part of this year's preseason issue!
Blue White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz goes in depth to look at how the Nittany Lions' offense is going to run in 2009 without the aid of the trio of wideouts that defined the past four years.
From the tight ends to the backfield, Penn State's offense will have some new wrinkles for the season ahead.
Find out what they'll be in the latest edition of Phil's Corner.
2009 Special Teams Preview
BWI special contributor Mary Jo Haverbeck breaks down the Nittany Lions' special teams units for the 2009 season. With a host of players from the 2008 season gone to graduation, Haverbeck examines who will join punter Jeremy Boone as starters in the special teams units for the season ahead.
Slash and Dash - BWI's Sean Fitz examines the do-everything versatility of Evan Royster and the breathtaking, take-it-to-the-house speed of Stephfon Green give Penn State the best 1-2 backfield tandem in the Big Ten.
Can the duo be as good as they previewed in the 2008 season?
Leader of the Pack - BWI editor Nate Bauer takes a look at the subtle but notable ways Daryll Clark has expanded his role as a team leader in the off-season. With the departure of a key group of seniors, Clark is now the man on the Nittany Lions' offense.
Spread HD: The Sequel - Bauer continues with a look at the infamously dubbed 'Spread HD' that the Lions unvelied to great success in 2008. Will Penn State's coaching staff be able to duplicate the high-powered offense that led the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl last season?
A Class of Distinction - BWI contributor Eric Thomas takes a look inside the Nittany Lions' famed 2006 recruiting class that included some standouts, some disappointments, and a host of players still hoping to make their marks this year.
... Plus, BWI's Sean Fitz gives an exclusive overview of some of the Lions' most coveted remaining prospects for the class of 2010.
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