During one play in 11-on-11 drills last Thursday, Redskins running back Roy Helu Jr. took a handoff, raced to the outside, turned the corner and sprinted 15 yards into the end zone.
Sure, it was just a no-contact, helmets-and-shorts OTA session. And, sure, it came against backups.
But for Helu, it also marked a turning point in his recovery from a toe injury that cost him 13 games last season. The practice was just his second since he landed on injured reserve with a toe injury last September.
“It felt good,” Helu said about putting on a helmet and jersey for the first time in almost nine months. “I felt like my jersey was smaller, so that gave me a little more confidence that maybe I gained a little more muscle.”
After experiencing little improvement during months of rehab for soreness near his big toe, the 24-year-old opted to have surgery in February. Then last week, noted foot and ankle specialist Robert Anderson, the Charlotte-based doctor who made the repair, gave Helu medical clearance to begin practicing.
“It’s good enough to compete out there, and at a better level than I was before I got hurt,” Helu said.
He participated in two practices last week and said he expects to be full-go when mandatory minicamp gets underway Tuesday at Redskins Park.
“It was perfect timing,” he said. “I’m thankful that I’m going to get [a few] practices under my belt.”
Asked if the toe injury was completely healed, Helu was as elusive as his running style.
“100-percent?” he asked. “I don’t really know. But it’s good enough to compete at a high level.”
And he’s going to need to do exactly that in order to secure a spot on the 53-man roster. Right now, the depth chart includes Alfred Morris and a couple of “help wanted” signs. Those jobs will be filled by some combination of veterans Helu and Evan Royster and draft picks Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison.
Helu would seem to have an edge given the team’s need for a change of pace back to complement Morris. Helu is quick, agile and caught 49 passes for 379 yards as a rookie. Then there's the experience factor; he’s entering his third season under Coach Mike Shanahan.
“Helu brings a lot to the table,” Shanahan said. “Hopefully he keeps getting better and better [because] anytime you have a guy that weighs 225 pounds, he [runs] under a 4.5 [second] 40 [yard dash] and he’s got receiving skills, he has the opportunity to make a big play. So it’s nice to have him back and have a chance to compete.”
But he’ll only be in the mix if he can stay healthy.
“It’s about job security,” Helu said with a chuckle when asked about the importance of staying on the field.
“Part of the process is going to be healing and it’s going to take time," he added. "I’m not focused on staying healthy, per se, but rather just competing the best I can. I don’t look too far in the past. I’m just thankful to be out here competing a higher level than before.”