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November 6, 2008

Royster could have starred without football

MORE: Football players with a lacrosse background

He rushed for 6,384 yards and helped his team win a Virginia state championship during a brilliant high school football career, so Evan Royster naturally attracted plenty of attention from colleges across the East Coast.

Penn State, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Johns Hopkins …

Johns Hopkins?

Even though Johns Hopkins doesn't have a Division I football program – it plays in the Division III Centennial Conference – that didn't stop the Blue Jays from pursuing Royster. They didn't particularly care about his football achievements, either; they were more interested in what he did with a lacrosse stick in his hands.

"If Evan had decided to concentrate on lacrosse … in my opinion Evan Royster would have been good enough to be a first-team All-American," Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said.

Royster just might earn All-America honors before finishing his college career, but it won't happen in lacrosse. He instead accepted a football scholarship to Penn State and has developed into one of the nation's top running backs.

Royster, a sophomore from Chantilly (Va.) Westfield in the D.C. suburbs, has rushed for 970 yards and averaged 7.2 yards per carry for the undefeated Nittany Lions. His emergence helps explain why Penn State is scoring 41.8 points per game – 11.5 more than the Nittany Lions averaged a year ago.

"I never would have given up football for lacrosse," Royster said. "If anything, I would have played both, but I kind of pushed (lacrosse) aside when I decided to come to Penn State. … I want to be the best football player I can be. Playing lacrosse would have taken away from that out-of-season stuff. It would have hurt me."

Royster may have given up lacrosse, but his background in the sport is evident whenever he carries the football. The vision he exemplifies as he bursts through a hole and the balance he shows while bouncing off tacklers are the same attributes that helped him score 33 goals as a senior at Westfield High.

Johns Hopkins wasn't the only lacrosse power to recruit him. Royster also was contacted by 2006 national champion Virginia, Maryland and Cornell.

"Lacrosse is a very fluid game," Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia said. "It's made for a guy who's a tailback or a free safety – a guy who needs to have a sort of intuition about athletics and how plays are going to develop. Those good running backs, you're not scripting the run for them. You hand the ball to them and want them to go with their natural instincts. That's what lacrosse does. Our sport is like a contact form of basketball."

The best-known combination football-lacrosse player is Jim Brown, who starred in both sports at Syracuse and has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Slowly but surely, Brown is getting some company.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney signed with Virginia as a lacrosse player and only later joined the Cavaliers' football team as a walk-on. Kerney's Pro Bowl jersey is hanging in Starsia's office.

Notre Dame tight end Will Yeatman currently is serving a suspension, but he has played football and lacrosse for the Fighting Irish. He led Notre Dame's lacrosse team with 46 points and 25 assists in 2007 and has made six career starts for the football team.

Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich was a good-enough lacrosse player at Conestoga High in Berwyn, Pa., to get recruited by Johns Hopkins.

"Mark probably was teetering back and forth a little more than Evan was," Pietramala said. "With Evan, as soon as the phone calls started, he knew (he would play football instead). With Mark, there was a bit more time before he came to that conclusion."

Royster started playing football in third grade and began playing lacrosse a year later when a neighbor in Virginia introduced him to the game.

He believes lacrosse helped give him experience in open-field running and kept him in shape for football season, but it never was his first love.

"Football was definitely my favorite," Royster said. "I love lacrosse, don't get me wrong. It's a fun sport to play. It's fast-paced. It's fun, a physical sport.''

But it couldn't match the thrill he got from playing football. And it certainly couldn't offer the same potential rewards.

Penn State's Joe Paterno was one of many coaches to notice Royster's versatility and realize how it could pay off.

"I never saw him play lacrosse… but I know what it takes to be a good lacrosse player," Paterno said. "He was one of the better lacrosse players in the state of Virginia, (which) has good high school lacrosse, and he may have been the best high school lacrosse player (in Virginia.).

"He's bright, and he's an excellent student. I saw some (tape) of him with the football. He's got good hands. He could change direction, had good sight, could see things. He looked like he was going to be a good football player, a good running back. If he hadn't been a good running back, we felt he could have been a good corner."

Royster's quick development as a running back made a move to defense unnecessary. He showed his promise last year by rushing for 513 yards on 82 carries in a backup role. Once he moved into the starting lineup this season, Royster wasted no time making an impact.

Royster became the first player in Paterno's 43-year coaching tenure to run for at least six touchdowns in the first two games of the season. Even though he hasn't carried the ball more than 19 times in any game this season, Royster has reached the 100-yard mark in five of Penn State's nine contests.

The contributions of Royster and first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark have helped Penn State upgrade its offense and soar to third in the BCS standings even after replacing quarterback Anthony Morelli and 1,300-yard rusher Rodney Kinlaw from last season's team.

"You go into every season thinking you can do good things," Royster said. "We're just going to keep playing every play like it can be a really big play that decides your season. We knew we had a shot going into the season, but you never really know how good a shot it is until you're far into the season.''

Royster already could have earned a national championship ring by now if he had chosen lacrosse instead of football. Johns Hopkins captured the NCAA lacrosse title during Royster's freshman year.

Then again, the way Penn State is playing, Royster just might win a national championship anyway without having to give up his favorite sport.

"In the offseason, I have a stick and I'll go out there a little bit," Royster said, "but (during the season) I just put the stick away."

Penn State running back Evan Royster isn't the only notable college football player with a significant lacrosse background. Here's a look at a collection of former lacrosse players on college football rosters.
Joey Ehrmann, Wake Forest, LB
The buzz: The son of former NFL defensive tackle Joe Ehrmann helped the Gilman School in Baltimore earn a No. 2 national ranking in lacrosse last year. His older brother, Barney, is an All-America lacrosse player at Georgetown.
Buddy Farnham, Brown, WR
The buzz: The former football and lacrosse team captain at Andover (Md.) High was recruited by Virginia's lacrosse program. He led the Ivy League in receiving last season and has 46 catches for 607 yards and five touchdowns this year.
Mark Herzlich, Boston College, LB
The buzz: The former attack man at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pa., was recruited to play lacrosse at Johns Hopkins before deciding to play football at BC. Herzlich ranks seventh in the ACC with 8.5 tackles per game.
Jonathan Meyers, Princeton, LB
The buzz: This former four-star prospect was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 18 inside linebacker in the 2008 recruiting class. He passed up offers from Florida and Michigan, among others, to play football and lacrosse at Princeton.
Evan Royster, Penn State, RB
The buzz: Royster scored 33 goals his senior year at Westfield High in Chantilly, Va., and was recruited by a host of lacrosse powers before opting to play football. He has run for 970 yards and ranks 19th in the nation in rushing.
Will Yeatman, Notre Dame, TE
The buzz: Yeatman led Notre Dame's lacrosse team in points and assists as a freshman and has made six career starts for the football team. He is serving a suspension for the rest of the 2008 football season after being arrested this fall on a charge of underage drinking.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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