Akayleb Evans saw the play before it happened. Years before, in fact.
Three good years at Tulsa put Evans on the radar of NFL scouts and in the crosshairs of multiple Power Five programs when he entered the transfer portal. But despite all the potential that turned those heads, Evans had never intercepted a pass in a college game. Just minutes into his first start as a Tiger, he came up with that elusive first pick.
“I was lit for sure,” Evans said. “I didn’t even know what to do with it. I done ran into the endzone, just feeling the energy in the crowd and stuff like that.”
The feeling was unlike any he’d had on a football field. It’s one Evans wants to get used to.
As excited as he was, it marked a necessary elevation in his game, the realization of the potential programs like Texas, Notre Dame and Mizzou had seen in him. Bigger games and bigger opportunities have always meant strictly business for Evans. The sentiment is especially true now as he plays in his final season of college football.
“Very business-like approach,” former McKinney coach Jeff Smith said of Evans. “I think he felt, like all good players do, they want to shoulder some of that responsibility because they’re a leader on the team and they know that it’s a big game and that they need to step up and play. … He always rose to the occasion and played hard in big games.”
Missouri’s season opener against Central Michigan wasn’t exactly regarded as a national showcase, but to play in the Southeastern Conference is a stage grand enough to suit the appetite that an adolescent Evans once felt and has since only fed with fire.
Smith had watched Evans since middle school. Back then, Evans was a skinny kid whose long and athletic build piqued Smith’s interest. As a freshman at McKinney, Evans was merely solid. But he wanted to be great. He spent most moments away from practice doing drill work, in the weight room or working on his footwork.
As soon as Evans began playing for McKinney, he and Smith had talks of the future, what things would look like years down the road, and what the ultimate goal was. Even on his worst days, Evans knew that playing the highest possible level of football was meant for him.
Even when the production wasn’t there, Evans always elevated his physicality and overall game to match his toughest opponents.
Three seasons later, Smith sat back and dwelled on Evans’ development. Though he wasn’t the most highly-sought prospect, two-star recruit Evans, who at one point was committed to Kansas, grew into a legitimate Division I defensive back.
“I saw (Evans) come up and hit people sometimes or make a play on the ball carrier that would make you say ‘Oh my goodness, that was pretty awesome,'” Smith said. “I really admired his physicality.”
After three successful seasons at Tulsa, Evans had a full range of options. He had the chance to return to Tulsa. He had the chance to test the NFL waters. But as former Tulsa secondary coach Aaron Fletcher eyed a chance to lead a group in arguably the best league in college football in his move to Missouri, Evans couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps to become a Tiger.
Evans’ trainer, Clay Mack, who works with NFL defensive backs like Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams, called this season Evans’ “redshirt rookie year in the NFL.”
“I love that idea,” Evans said. “You’re not going to the NFL yet, but it’s the next step before the NFL. It’s just a prep year for that.”
The senior defensive back is right where he wants to be, or in his eyes, where he needs to be. While Week 1 might not have been the marquee matchup that a player like Evans migrated to the SEC for, Saturday’s game in Lexington is.
Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali will line up at receiver on the other side, a tall task and one fit for a player trying to prove himself in the SEC. The game might be bigger, but his approach is the same as it’s always been.
“We just got to be physical with them,” Evans said. “At the end of the day, anybody that you go against, if you can be more physical than them it slows them down and it gives you an advantage. … That’s the challenge for the whole defense. We got to be physical, no matter who it is that’s in front of us because we’re all on scholarship so everybody has talent. What’s gonna be the difference?”
Despite not starting against Central Michigan, his presence was as impactful as anyone in the secondary. While the group had its fair share of early mishaps against the Chippewas, Evans became one of its bright spots upon his name being called. Evans allowed just four receptions of the 12 times he was targeted, coming away with his lone interception in the 2nd quarter and two pass breakups. Evans was a sure tackler, too; he allowed just four yards after the catch.
“They had a great training camp,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said of Evans and fellow transfer Blaze Alldredge. “They did some good things. You never know until you get in the game exactly how it’s gonna go. So, the way those guys stepped up and performed, I was excited about that.”
Under the direction of new defensive coordinator Wilks, Evans and the secondary will be looking to “score on defense,” and make plays on the ball as Wilks told media in August. Evans will likely have future opportunities at snagging passes out of the air.
As for now, his first SEC game is out of the way. His first pick has been reeled in. He’d never deny the pressure that comes with playing in the league, but he handles this stage in a more suit-and-tie kind of way than many of his peers. The rest of the season is as simple for him as playing football at the level he’s always desired.
“There’s definitely a little bit of nerves,” Evans said. “I feel like that’s with any game. But I’ve learned that you have to just be able to accept that. A lot of people try to shy away from it and ignore it, but I feel like the key is to know that it’s there and it’s okay. It’s natural human instinct. Once the game starts, it’s football. I’ve been playing this since I was in fourth grade. So, you know, it’s the same game.”
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