After being cut by Norfolk State, Darius Royster becomes a star defender at NC Central

Darius Royster had it all planned out.

When he graduated from Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake, Va., Royster figured he would stay close to home, play football at Norfolk State and earn his college degree.

But his path wasn’t that simple. Royster, now an N.C. Central redshirt senior defensive lineman who will face the Spartans on Saturday, didn’t realize that plans -- and coaching staffs -- can change quickly.

Royster had been recruited by the Spartans, plus he had friends at the school.

But by the time he got to Norfolk State, the Spartans’ football coaching staff that recruited him was fired. He was told he would have to try out and be evaluated by the new staff. Royster didn’t have a problem proving himself. He thought he was good enough to make the team. So he went through the evaluation process with the other walk-ons.

As camp approached, other walk-ons started hearing from the coaching staff. Royster did not. So he texted one of the coaches. Minutes later, his phone rang.

“A coach called and said I didn’t make the team,” Royster told the N&O on Tuesday. “That was a defining moment in my life.”

At 190 pounds, Royster was told he was too skinny to play linebacker in the MEAC. But he didn’t give up. Corey Harris, an N.C. Central grad and one of his coaches at Deep Creek, put Royster in contact with Jordan Reid, a former Eagles’ running backs coach.

“I liked the film a lot and brought his name up in a recruiting meeting,” Reid told the N&O about Royster. “We agreed to give him an opportunity because of his upside. He’s worked his butt off in the weight room, classroom and on the field, of course, and now he’s flourishing.”

Reid was able to get Royster a spot on N.C. Central’s football team.

The player who was told he was too skinny to play linebacker in the MEAC switched to defensive end and has turned into a nightmare for offensive tackles. Now at 225 pounds, Royster is one of the best defensive players in the conference. He leads the league in tackles for loss (14.0) and sacks (8.0) and is a candidate for MEAC defensive player of the year.

Royster has already earned a psychology degree and is working towards another in criminal justice. With three more regular-season games, Royster has a chance to add to his tackles for loss totals and move up in the NCCU record books.

He’s currently seventh all-time in school history with 31.0 tackles for loss. If he averages 3.6 tackles for loss per game the rest of the season, he could finish No. 1. He has 8.0 sacks this season, tied for fifth in school history for single sacks in a season.

But for now, he doesn’t want to look ahead.

Royster sets NC Central records

On the days when the football team has to wake up early for meetings, weights or running, Royster doesn’t need to set an alarm.

For 6 a.m. wintertime workouts, Royster wakes up early on his own and beats his teammates to the gym.

Missing a workout or a meeting isn’t an option for Royster. In fact, he loves that part of being on the team. He never takes it for granted.

“I was just praying every night for where I am right now, just trying to get the opportunity to play football,” Royster said. “I’m excited for it. I wake up before my alarm. I can’t miss it, I’m not going to miss it.”

Royster had always had that same enthusiasm.

Last season’s leader in tackles for loss wasn’t on full scholarship in 2018, but he emerged as a breakout player in the season-opener against Prairie A&M. In a nationally televised game, Royster, who was then 210 pounds, came off the bench and broke the school record for tackles for loss (6) in one game.

Royster kept up his production throughout his junior season, and finished with 17 tackles for loss (No. 7 in school history for a single season) and four sacks. When first-year coach Trei Oliver took over in December, he was surprised Royster didn’t have a full scholarship. So he made sure he corrected that in the spring.

“A guy like that, with his athletic ability and his character. That’s the kind of guy you want in your program,” Oliver told the N&O. “He’s an outstanding leader, he works hard, he doesn’t say much, he leads by example. Has a great family and you just love to see guys like that excel and do big things. I’m so pleased to have him on the team. I’m pleased where he is academically as well as athletically. That’s the least I could have done.”

Royster meets Norfolk State again

The mention of Norfolk State gets a reaction out of Royster. When asked about playing the Spartans on Saturday, he let out a couple of deep sighs, followed by a sly smile.

Will he be playing with extra motivation?

“Yes,” Royster said. “My mom, that’s all she’s been talking about. She’s been talking about it since the summer. She’s amped for it.”

Last season against the Spartans in Norfolk, Royster said he was “too hype” before the game. Royster, who had three tackles, said the entire defense had an outstanding game. The unit sacked NSU six times and forced four turnovers in the Eagles’ 36-6 win over the Spartans.

This time around, Royster expects to tone down his pregame emotions. He still has friends who play for the Spartans. But some of them tell a different story about his departure.

“They play the narrative like I traded on them,” Royster said with a laugh. “But I’m like ‘y’all didn’t want me on the team.’”

Royster turned being dejected by the Spartans into being one of the most productive defensive ends in N.C. Central history.

When asked how he’d describe the journey, Royster sat back and thought for a minute.

“Just staying patient,” he said. “Coach always says what you put in is what you’re going to get out. I put in so much work into the offseason and everything I do so when the game comes I can just shine.”

Norfolk State at NC Central

When: 2 p.m., Saturday

Where: O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, Durham

Watch: ESPN3


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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.