Robert Royal is proof that hard work pays off. The Redskins' third-year tight end was one of seven tight ends on the roster heading into training camp-and he was behind veterans Walter Rasby and Fred Baxter on the depth chart.
But throughout the offseason and training camp, Royal was among the team's hardest workers. With the release of Rasby and Baxter in the last two weeks, coaches decided to give Royal a chance as the starting tight end.
While head coach Joe Gibbs said on Friday that the team may eventually sign another tight end to the roster, Royal is excited about the opportunity before him. He expects to maintain his practice and workout routine just as he has through the offseason--except that he could see more time with the offense on game day.
"Even though I'm starting, I'm just going to keep doing the same things that I've been doing every day--continue to learn the system and try to become a better player," he said.
It's that approach that has caught on with the coaching staff.
"I think Robert is very conscientious and smart," Gibbs said. "We even had him working some at H-back. He has worked extremely hard. Even when he wasn't starting, he was committed all the time in practice.
"We kept seeing him out here make plays [at practice], and we think he is a young guy who really has some potential. We think he has earned it and we'll give him a chance to take his shot out there."
The 6-4, 257-pound tight end started the first six games of the 2003 season, hauling in five catches for 48 yards. But his season came to an end when he fractured his hip in a Week 6 game against Tampa Bay. In 2002, his rookie season, he was sidelined for the entire season with a high ankle sprain.
Royal hopes his injuries are a thing of the past.
"I'm staying healthy this year, that's the biggest thing," Royal said. "I actually thought I was off to a good start last year before I got injured. But now I'm more familiar with the NFL and the speed of the game, so I can be more aggressive and just have fun."
Coming out of LSU, Royal was regarded as more of a pass-catching tight end. He finished his collegiate career with 59 receptions for 707 yards and seven touchdowns. The role of a pass-catching tight end seemed to fit Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun" offense that he tried to implement as Redskins head coach in 2002-03.
When Gibbs arrived, Royal knew he had to adjust his game.
"I was more of a pass-catching tight end coming out of college and my first year here I focused on catching passes," he said. "But after I got hurt, I really focused on improving my skills as a run-blocking tight end. And Coach Gibbs saw that I could run-block in training camp and the preseason games, so I was able to catch on."
Royal, who has one catch for 10 yards in limited action this season, said he has a good understanding of the offensive scheme, but he prepares hard every week because the schemes change so much based on the opponent.
"It can be a very difficult offense to get down," he said. "I understand the philosophy of the coaches. But every week we change personnel and formations so much that you never really have it down. You have to prepare yourself every week as if it were the first game of the year."