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Needed During Stretch Run, Rookies Finding Ways To Stay Balanced

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Already experiencing more rigorous schedules as NFL players, the Redskins' rookies will have to prepare for the physical and mental grind of the final month of the season.

"It's tough, it's a job, really," said Redskins rookie running back Robert Kelley. "It ain't just going out there and playing football any more. It's definitely like taking steps to get to 100 percent."

Gone are the days of alternating between practices and college classes only to have extended periods away from football.

For the Redskins' seven rookies on the active roster, turning the calendar to the month of December in recent years meant one of either two things: getting ready for a single bowl game or a jumpstart on rest and relaxation before another season.

The last 12 months have been quite different, though, as they've been going nearly nonstop since the beginning of their senior seasons, as they had to go through the NFL Combine and pro days before almost immediately jumping back into things once they were either drafted or signed.

The rookies joined veteran teammates during Phase Two offseason workouts in the days following the NFL Draft and then were onto rookie minicamp, OTAs and mandatory veteran minicamp before a brief month-long break only to return for training camp in Richmond, Va.

Since starting training camp in late July, there have only been a handful of days off.

"I think the biggest thing, it's so cliché, but it's the only way to do it, is just one day at a time," quarterback Nate Sudfeld said. "If you try to look forward, all you have to do throughout a week, throughout a month or the rest of the season, you kind of get overwhelmed. But if you just go one day at time, just say, 'Alright, today I'm just going to be on time and do everything as hard as I can.' By the end of the day, you just relax and get ready for the next day. That's really the way I've been able to do it and that's the advice that I've been given and it's helped."

The month of the December will shed new light onto the rigors of being an NFL player. At most in college football, a team will play 14 games with multiple breaks between the first game of the season and the last, whether that's a bowl game or not.

In the NFL, though, there's no stopping during the final month of the season. For the Redskins, they have a game every week in December and the regular season finale is on New Year's Day.

During that stretch, Washington will rely on quite a few of their rookies to help the franchise make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since making three straight appearances during the 1990-92 seasons.

"Everybody is just kind of getting their feeling like they want to slow down a little bit or kind of hitting the wall where you've been banging around a lot," rookie wide receiver Maurice Harris said. "But at the end of the day, it's just a mental thing. You've just got to overcome it and know that we've got games in the future that we've got to play."

Starting the season on the team's practice squad, Harris believes he's a little fresher than some of his teammates.

He wasn't 2016 No. 1-overall pick Jared Goff's top target during the 2015 season at Cal and managed only 81 receptions over the course of four college seasons.

So far this year, the 6-foot-3, 200 pounder has recorded six receptions for 53 yards in five appearances. Three of those receptions have been for first downs on third down plays.

"What really drew us to him was we kept him because of his size and his effort during the preseason – then the first couple games of the regular season, scout team, he was killing our defense," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden recalled. "He was doing a great job running routes full speed. He was taking every rep, and we decided to promote him because of his effort. We gave him an opportunity to play and he didn't disappoint."

Third-round pick Kendall Fuller is another rookie who has stepped into a big role as the games have piled up.

Graded by some as a first-round talent in the draft, the 21-year-old wasn't taken until the 84th-overall pick due, in part, to a torn ACL suffered at Virginia Tech.

With the 53rd pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins selected linebacker Su'a Cravens out of USC. Take a look at his collegiate career in photos.

After spending the first three games of the season on the inactive list, Fuller has appeared in eight straight games and is the team's top nickel corner.

"I don't think it's too much physically, mentally you just got to keep on pushing," Fuller said. "For me I didn't have to go through so much during the training, offseason things like that. No excuses whatsoever."

Kelley, meanwhile, had to fight and claw his way to earn a spot on the active roster after going undrafted out of Tulane.

He never really assumed a lead back role for the Green Wave and even played some fullback during his college career. But he did enough to at least warrant a look to see if he could provide something for the roster.

"We got him in here – as we got a lot of the rookie free agents in here – we worked him out in the rookie OTAs, and we thought enough of him to keep him on the roster and bring him to training camp, and he did some great things in training camp," Gruden said. "First of all, he picked up the offense extremely well. That's step one, you have got to be smart enough to play in the National Football League. I don't care how skilled you are – so that was step one. Then step two, how he runs – what's his vision like. Then step three is ball security, pass protection, and then run after contact, which you can't tell until you get him in the preseason games where you're going live. That's where we saw him really doing a good job after contact – getting those extra two, three, four yards."

Kelley eventually worked his way up the running back hierarchy and into the No. 3 running back role for the regular season opener.

The 24-year-old would be used sparingly during the first quarter of the season, not recording a single carry during the first two months before a 45-yard run against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6 turned heads.

Now he's the Redskins' No. 1 back, supplanting Matt Jones for the spot.

"I don't know, like sometimes I'm feel I'm about to hit the wall that they talk about, I really don't know what it is, I guess it's just crashing," Kelley said. "But when I get out there and start playing football I just forget all about it."

Then there's Su'a Cravens, a sparkplug for the defense whenever he's out on the field. He had the game-winning interception against the New York Giants in Week 3 and also had a key sack against the Cincinnati Bengals late in regulation of that game to force overtime.

"He's constant juice, but it's always directed at getting better and mastering his craft," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "He loves football. He loves working at it. He loves practicing. So my stance on Su'a has not changed. I'm very excited about him. I think he's got an incredibly bright future just because he's a really good football player, but he's a football player that likes football, he likes to work at it. He wants to get better. He's going to force himself to get better."

Find a way to get your mind off it
It can feel like oversaturation for a rookie. Just nonstop football all the time. That's why decompressing during downtime is very important.

"We get so caught up in it, even though we're football players, we love football so you may catch yourself, instead of watching a movie, cartoons or sitcoms, you're watching another football game and your mind gets drained of it," defensive end Anthony Lanier said. "It's just coping with ways to find like whether it's talking to your friends, your family, your girlfriend -- just trying to keep your mind off it for at least an hour a day cause most of the time you rambling thinking of plays, about different scenarios, how you can do better at this and sometimes you just need to get away from it.

Lanier – who has gained 18 pounds since being signed in May in an effort to get his body physically prepared for professional football – can often been seen dancing around or joking with teammates, never letting being in the NFL create too much stress in his life.

"You can't be serious all the time," Lanier said. "You'll frustrate yourself and make yourself mentally break down."

Harris tries to spend as much time with his two daughters – Brooklyn and Bailey – and even got to go back to his native Greensboro, N.C., during the team's Bye Week.

Kelley "just chilled" during his Bye Week, fresh of his first career NFL start, to get some balance in his life.

"I didn't even watch football, just to get away from it," Kelley said. "Be a regular person for a while cause it can get overwhelming. You've been playing 11 games your whole life in college and high school and then all of a sudden you got like 16 weeks mandatory football games. It's a bit much, but knew what you signed up for, but any chance I get to get away from the game I definitely take it."

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