It's never easy for a player to transition into a new position, and it's especially hard when that player has to make a move that requires him to completely rewire his football DNA. Casual analysts and fans really underestimate what it takes to bump inside from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. The positions are similar in name, but they are completely different as far as what is required in order to be successful.
Outside 'Backers vs. Inside 'Backers
Playing outside linebacker allows the player to play more in space and stay out of the traffic. An outside linebacker needs to be able to set the edge against the run while also having the athletic ability to get after the quarterback. They don't need to worry about their pass coverage as much as inside linebackers do. In comparison, inside linebackers are right in the middle of things. They have to deal with sifting through traffic in order to locate and bring down the ball carrier. Possessing at least adequate pass coverage ability is crucial for a guy on the inside if he wants to be a full-time, three-down linebacker. This type of transition would be tough on just about any player, but Rashaan Evans has adjusted nicely.
Rashaan Evans' Adjustment
The experiment with Evans began last year in training camp. Nick Saban had designed certain packages that allowed Evans to kick inside and mirror dual-threat quarterbacks. The flexibility gave Saban a weapon that made the Crimson Tide defense more lethal. With Evans' speed and closing ability on the field, dual-threat quarterbacks that had given Alabama trouble in the past were easier to contain. That's not to say there weren't some bumps in the road, but the sideline-to-sideline ability that Evans had shown really gave the Tide defense a new element.
Originally, when Evans was playing inside linebacker in live games, he was playing closer to the line of scrimmage and it was evident that he didn't have many pass responsibilities. He was essentially a fourth defensive lineman and his main responsibility was clear: contain the quarterback. Evans did that very well, but the smaller responsibilities required to play the position successfully were foreign to him. He seemed lost at times when he was asked to cover shallow drag routes, and he clearly wasn't playing as fast because it was obvious that he wasn't comfortable at the position yet. That all changed this spring when Evans was moved inside full time.
The first thing that stood out in the spring game in regards to Evans' transition was how fast he was playing. He displayed much improved instincts and he seemed to be much more comfortable playing off the ball. Evans wasn't perfect, and he did come off as lost in coverage at times, but it was a positive sign for Alabama fans to see. The other area that Evans impressed was in run support. He did an excellent job diagnosing plays quickly and was surprisingly effective at stacking and shedding offensive linemen. He had no problem mixing things up and getting physical which was also an encouraging sign.
At 6'3 230, the junior out of Auburn, AL has the physical attributes to succeed as an inside linebacker, though he could stand to gain more weight. Evans will need to spend the offseason continuing to work on gaining more experience in coverage in order to evolve into a three-down linebacker, but there is no reason to believe he won't eventually be comfortable enough to do just that. Expect new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to use Evans in a variety of ways. His speed and pass rushing ability will make a significant impact in Alabama's zone blitzing scheme and he will also be a major contributor to containing dual-threat quarterbacks. Don't be surprised if Evans is deployed in a similar way to how Clay Matthews has been used in Green Bay the last couple of years.