Royston returns: Gophers safety finally back

Royston returns: Gophers safety finally back

Kim Royston turned 24 in June, an age many people would love to relive. Around the Minnesota football program, though, he's the old guy. His younger teammates have mischievously reminded him of this.

''They all say slick things, sly things, but my remark back is, `I'm going to play like a man amongst boys,''' Royston said with a grin.

Royston, a standout at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul who started his college career at Wisconsin before coming home, is using a rare sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for a medical hardship. Last season, he never saw the field because a broken left leg he suffered in spring practice didn't heal in time for him to return to action. (He also sat out in 2008, as required for transfers between FBS schools.)

This fall, he's finally back in the lineup as Minnesota's starting safety with the opener coming up Saturday at Southern California.

''I thought my college career was over,'' Royston said. ''It was a great blessing, and I'm just not going to have any regrets.''

Former high school teammate Shady Salamon is the other starting safety. He's a senior (yet two years younger than Royston), but the ex-running back didn't switch to defense until 2009. Troy Stoudermire, one of the starting cornerbacks, was a wide receiver until the middle of last season. The other starting cornerback, Brock Vereen, is a sophomore.

So it's clear that Royston will be relied on heavily for leadership and production this year.

''I've gotten better as I've gotten older, because you learn more and you understand things better and you mature,'' coach Jerry Kill said. ''Kim, he's older. He's been in it for six years. He's had the ups and downs. All of the kids that do things as young people, he's already done and understands that and is a good kind of like coach so to speak on the field. We need him to stay healthy and we need him to play well, but there's no question in he's an important cog in what we do.''

Royston, who started all 13 games for the Gophers as a junior in 2009, endured several false starts last season during his recovery.

''With a bone injury you've just got to wait for it to grow back,'' Royston said. ''There was a lot of talk out there about me coming back, and that wasn't the case. But my injury was progressing really well, and then it kind of plateaued out and stopped growing. So that was very frustrating. I definitely thought I'd get at least half the season. But if I would've played half the season, I wouldn't be back right now. So everything worked out well.''

His performance won't matter - and won't be accurately discernible - until the games actually start. But Royston said he's felt just as fast and athletic on the field during preseason practice.

''I felt good through spring ball, but still I didn't have my football legs under me,'' he said, adding: ''At some point this summer I just stopped thinking about it and started playing football and just tried to be the old Kim.''

Royston, naturally, is as eager for the opener on Saturday afternoon at USC.

''It's been a long time coming. A lot of rehab. A lot of ups and downs. But now after having a year off I'm definitely ready to get back out there and stick my nose in it,'' Royston said.

The player Kill and the Gophers will rely on for guidance on the other side of the ball, of course, is quarterback MarQueis Gray, who has taken over the position after largely spending the last two seasons as a wide receiver.

''That guy better be a leader or you're not going to win,'' Kill said.

Gray shared a confident vision of what his first start will look like.

''I can't wait until Saturday. That's the moment when I know it's really here. Once I take that first snap and we're doing great things, not having turnovers or bad plays, just making all the great reads for our team and putting our team in great position to win, then I'll know it's really here,'' he said.

Notes: Junior outside linebacker Keanon Cooper, who had surgery on his wrist less than two weeks ago, has returned to practice and is on track to start against USC. ... Senior center Ryan Wynn, who was out for a week because of an ankle injury, is on track to start, though sophomore Zach Mottla is pushing him. Said Kill Tuesday of Wynn: ''He practiced well and was with the first group, but if he doesn't practice well, we'll play the other one. That's just pretty much how we've always worked.''

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