Redskins running into questions

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Sports,NFL,Redskins,John Keim

Rushing game remains an uncertainty so far

ASHBURN -- The Redskins have a running game; they just don't have their running back.

Then again, they might have three. Or perhaps just two if the third isn't healthy. They have knowns, and they have unknowns.

Really, what the Redskins do have at running back are two things: questions and possibilities.

They have a veteran in Tim Hightower, but when will he be healthy? Coach Mike Shanahan said he's not close to 100 percent. They have a young running back with flash to his game in Roy Helu. But what sort of load can he handle? Rookie Alfred Morris has looked fine early in camp but hasn't played a preseason game. And they have a third veteran back in Evan Royster who starred at the end of last season. Can he really do it again?

"He's come a long way," Redskins guard Kory Lichtensteiger said last week. "In training camp I'm not sure if I noticed him last year."

A big question for all three: Are they durable? Royster played only six games last season (with 56 carries), while Helu carried the ball 96 times over four games but only four times combined in the next two. Hightower has never carried more than 153 times in a season.

Helu said durability is "mental."

"I'm building that, absolutely," he said. "You have to build that here. I knew of it, but experience it is a whole different thing."

Royster said he learned there's a difference between durability in college -- he's the all-time leading rusher at Penn State -- and the NFL. It's all about preparation. Royster said he changed his eating habits in the offseason and started using a foam roller and getting massages.

"It's not as much about durability as it is about recovery," Royster said. "It's recovery time that you need to be doing the right things, eating right and stretching. When you go into a game and you're not fully recovered, that's how you get hurt. In college you're sore after a game, but in the NFL it's a whole different type of sore. I could barely move, and it's hard to come back from that."

Royster has worked with the starting unit as Hightower remains limited in full-team work. Besides, Royster ran well in the final two games with 245 combined yards.

"He was just kind of a guy, and when he did get his opportunity he showed good signs, and then he'd fall out of nowhere and show flashes," Lichtensteiger said. "Toward the end of the year he was just a good player.

"He has a little wiggle to him, maybe the best wiggle of anybody in our running back group. That helps him make people miss and get a little space."

For Hightower, the trick is to avoid what happens to other backs coming off an ACL injury. History has shown a running back's production drops in his first year back. Hightower knows this but remains upbeat.

"I always have confidence," Hightower said. "I had confidence when I was laying in the hospital. It'll get better with time. I'm not worried about it."

Hightower is the best all-around if healthy. Helu offers more game-breaking ability. Royster was excellent after first contact and decent in pass protection.

"Number one, we have to stay healthy," coach Mike Shanahan said. "If we can get a guy that can do it all, obviously we'd like to leave that guy in and play all the time."

jkeim@washingtonexaminer.com

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