Evan Royster stood on the field at Beaver Stadium recently and looked around at the empty seats, imagining the time when they would be filled with more than 100,000 fans sending out waves of noise crashing down to the lush green grass.
It's exciting for Penn State players to experience that atmosphere, dubbed "The Great Show" by the locals. And when Royster thought about taking in the show for a fifth season, he embraced it while delaying the start of his NFL career.
"Just being in the stadium right now makes you think about it," the Nittany Lions' star running back said earlier this month at the team's media day in State College.
Many observers say there is a good reason why Royster came back. The Fairfax, Va., native is just 481 yards away from breaking the Penn State record for career rushing yards held by Curt Warner, who amassed 3,398 from 1979 through 1982.
There's more, however. To hear Royster tell it, it's "the stadium, the atmosphere, everything that comes with college."
"There wasn't one specific reason that was the deciding factor," he said. "It was a lot of things. I wanted to have my senior year here. I wanted to come back and be able to improve my draft stock. I wanted to have another shot at a Big Ten championship. It's a lot of things.
"I don't think the money was worth it. College is an experience. It's been fun so far, and I'm hoping to get another year like" the previous ones.
Royster, who redshirted as a freshman, announced he would return for his senior season less than one week after the Nittany Lions ended their 2009 campaign with a Capital One Bowl win over LSU. NFL draft observers had projected Royster as a mid-round pick.
The return of Royster means he can cement his legacy alongside Warner, Blair Thomas, Lydell Mitchell, John Cappelletti and others in the pantheon of great Penn State running backs. When discussing the rushing record at media day, he took a deep breath at one point and conceded, "It's tough to talk about.
"It's something that I really want to do," he said. "I'm not going to lie and say that I'm not thinking about it, because I am. I want it more than anything really. It's something I'll take with me for the rest of my life.
"Once it happens, I'll be happy that it has, and I'll just be looking to build on it and get back to playing the game and not have to think about it so much."
Given that he averaged nearly 90 yards per game last season, Royster, barring injury, would surpass the record at that pace at home on Oct. 9 against Illinois in the sixth game of the season.
Contacted at his home in Washington state, Warner said, "I wish him the best. I have no ill will at all. He's been a durable running back the last three years."
Warner, inducted during the summer into the College Football Hall of Fame, said he is amazed his record has held up since 1982. Ki-Jana Carter could have had it but he passed on his senior year to go to the NFL in 1994. With one year left in his Penn State career, Curtis Enis became ineligible in 1997 after accepting gifts from an agent.
"Any of those guys could have gone past that number," Warner said. "There have been some great running backs. But it's not really the numbers to me. It's not as much about the individual as it is about the team. I was blessed and privileged to play with a great bunch of guys, and on [the 1982] national championship team. . . . I'm more proud of winning a national championship than anything else."
Coach Joe Paterno has seen all the ball-toting greats in Happy Valley, including Lenny Moore, who played in the 1950s when Paterno was an assistant under Rip Engle. He is uncomfortable comparing Royster to Warner.
"After thinking about it, these kids are playing a lot more football games," Paterno said last spring. "So I don't think the stats really are significant in comparing one against the other. I think Royster is a good tailback and if he stays healthy, he'll have a big year."
Royster does not possess one great quality as a back but combines a number of attributes to be among the best. He possesses patience and vision, is able to pick out the smallest crease and shoot through it or use his quick feet to avoid a direct hit from a would-be tackler.
The one aspect he tried to improve during the off-season was power. Royster underwent a weight-training program in the summer that helped him check into preseason camp at 228 pounds, 15 pounds over his playing weight from last season.
Royster explained he wanted to increase his durability and have a more consistent workload. He carried the ball 20 or more times only twice last season, with a high of 23 against Minnesota.
"It's just to take on more carries," he said. "Last year there were games where I felt like I couldn't move another step. My body was so worn down after last year. I think this will help me deliver the blow a little better."
After discussing the weight gain with his coaches, Royster said he probably would be closer to 220 pounds once the Lions start their season.
Penn State's running game will be vital in the early going, given the team's inexperience at quarterback. This means more action for Royster, either running or catching a quick pass out of the backfield, and more leadership on the offensive side.
Of course, as one of the nation's top collegiate running backs, Royster will be under scrutiny everywhere from NFL scouts who would like to see the whole package that makes a pro runner successful.
Mike Mayock, an analyst for NFL Network, said he personally has not seen tape of Royster but that the word he hears is that scouts like him.
"He's a decent-sized back," Mayock said. "He has to stay healthy, be productive and show that he's a three-down back. He needs to show skills in pass protection and catching the football."
Royster will get a chance to showcase his talents at some pretty hostile venues - at Alabama, at Iowa and at Ohio State, all Top 10 teams in preseason polls. In the matchups against Iowa and Ohio State last year, both at home, Royster gained a total of 105 yards rushing.
"We pride ourselves on having this big stadium with all these fans and we can't give up losses at home like that," he said. "This stadium is too much of an asset to us to lose games like that. We're looking to eliminate the mistakes and, hopefully, get out there and contend for the Big Ten championship."
Royster embarks on his final season Saturday with his first of seven games at Beaver Stadium, the first time he'll see the "Blue Royster Cult" unfurl its sign behind the Penn State bench. It's a meaningful season for him, and he can't wait.
"There are a lot of great things I've experienced here at Penn State," he said. "It's really priceless. It's very special to me. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it's really true. I'll never forget the memories that have been made here."
Offense: With a new quarterback on the scene, the Nittany Lions will rely on their running attack early, and that means more carries for Evan Royster and his impressive backups, Stephfon Green and freshman Silas Redd. The Lions return their top two receivers from last year in Derek Moye and Graham Zug. The offensive line, anchored by all-American Stefen Wisniewski, has been reshuffled and will be watched closely.
Defense: The Lions suffered some big losses in their front seven. Devon Still, a 6-foot-5, 304-pound tackle, is ticketed for Jared Odrick's spot while Michael Mauti could fortify the linebacking corps if he is fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered last year. End Jack Crawford is their primary pass rusher. The secondary is solid and led by cornerback D'Anton Lynn. Converted wide receiver Chaz Powell provides depth.
Special teams: Collin Wagner was solid last season (11 of 12 successful field-goal attempts from inside 30 yards) but not spectacular (4 of 10 on tries of longer than 30 yards). The competition for the successor to graduated punter Jeremy Boone is wide open with two walk-ons in the mix. The Lions worked hard in the spring and preseason to improve return games that were just awful last season.
Coaching: Just six wins short of 400 for his career, 83-year-old Joe Paterno returns for his 45th season having come off an intestinal virus that kept him from traveling for a good part of the summer. He still doesn't appear to be 100 percent healthy, and it remains to be seen whether he can coach from the sideline for entire games. But a veteran staff of assistants will make sure no area is lacking.
Prediction: Compared to last year, the Penn State schedule is absolutely brutal. No other team in the nation must play on the road against three teams (Alabama, Ohio State, Iowa) ranked in preseason Top 10 polls. Only the truest of Nittany Nation loyalists would bet the Lions win one of those three. The thought here is that the Lions will get tripped up in these three games, plus one more, and finish 8-4 and in fourth place in the Big Ten.
- Joe Juliano