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A Salute to the 2017 Seniors: Rashaan Evans

With a Plains pedigree rendering him the unlikeliest of Alabama signees out of Auburn High School, Rashaan Evans defied an injury-tainted career to emerge as one of the most talented Bama ‘backers in recent memory

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
Rashaan Evans emerged as a leader when Alabama needed one most.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone thought Rashaan Evans was an Auburn lock. Recruiting gurus, pigskin pundits, and even the Auburn athletic department just knew that Rashaan Evans would be a Tiger after National Signing Day in 2014.

After all, those folks were justified in that assumption. A star linebacker at Auburn High School, both of Evans’ parents were former Tiger athletes. He grew up an Auburn fan…he’d been to games at Jordan-Hare. But despite a premature “pre-built and hidden by code” bio on the Auburn website introducing him as the new Prince of the Plains, Evans shocked the world and joined fellow Auburn High grad Reuben Foster at the Capstone, making Saban’s recruiting coup that much more impressive.

Once in Tuscaloosa, the 6-3, 234-pound Evans proved himself worthy of the acclaim that had him pegged as one of the top linebacker recruits in his class, with the linebacker contributing early and often before growing into an expanded role as a team leader and headhunter on multiple Tide championship contending teams. The speedy, athletic, versatile Evans was at the core of a banged-up Bama defense that endured injury after injury before emerging as National Champion earlier in January, putting a fitting bookend on a career that spanned two national titles and four trips to the College Football Playoffs.

In addition to evolving into one of the most versatile linebackers of the Saban Era at Alabama, Evans was also the leader the Tide needed to navigate a season that saw veteran after veteran fall to injury. Through it all, the battered ‘backer, himself injured at times, held down the fort, rallying younger players and providing a steady presence even when his on-field contributions were limited by his physical impairments.

It’s fitting that Evans saw the culmination of his career in championship form while playing two of his best games in crimson. He thrived against both Clemson and Georgia in the College Football Playoffs, and helped Alabama win yet another national title. Now, like so many Tide defenders before him, he will more than likely see his career continue at the next level. Let’s take a brief look back at his career, and a glimpse forward to his future as a possible NFL contributor.

The High School Years

There’s good reason that Evans was coveted by nearly every football power south of the Mason Dixon Line in the Class of 2014. Though most figured his choice would come down to Auburn or Alabama, even West Coast stalwart UCLA spent time chasing the highly-touted linebacker, since his combination of size and athleticism made him a perfect fit for defenses trimming down to cover the speedier, more elusive skill players filling out the rosters of spread offenses. From his high school tape, it was clear that Evans would be able to perform in any style of defense, as he had the bulk to stuff the middle in a traditional 4-3, and the speed off the edge to play as an end rusher in a 3-4 set. He was hybrid a linebacker prospect as recruitniks had seen in years, and his abilities fell into the favor of defensive guru Nick Saban early on in the evaluation process.

Evans was the top outside linebacker prospect in his class, and was a consensus five-star recruit and Parade All-American as a high school senior. He also earned honors as a second team MaxPreps All-American and UnderArmor All-American, in addition to being ranked the #11 overall player in the 24/7 Sports Top 247. In his senior year at Auburn High under Coach Tim Carter, Evans recorded 77 tackles, 43 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, five passes broken up, three forced fumbles, one pass broken up, and a fumble recovery. Based on that performance, he was designated the number two player in Alabama, was name the 2013 Class 6A Lineman of the Year as a senior, and was honored as a first-team Alabama Sports Writers Association All-State performer in Class 6A for 2013.

It was clear that while listed as an outside linebacker and pass rush specialist, the athletic Evans could easily put on a little bulk and play inside in an attacking 3-4 scheme like the one run at Alabama. No one expected Saban to pull out his second straight coup over in-state recruiting rival Auburn (Alabama had signed another five-star linebacker out of Auburn High with Tiger roots in Foster the previous season), but when the dust cleared on National Signing Day 2014, Saban had Evans’ signature… and a new weapon in his linebacking arsenal.

The College Years

Immediately after arriving at the Capstone, Evans demonstrated exactly why the linebacker-loving Saban had coveted him as a crown jewel of the most recent class. Evans started exactly where he had left off as a senior: as a potent, disruptive edge-rusher and brutalizing tackler. On a defensive roster studded with stars and future NFL Draft picks, Evans broke into the line-up as primarily a pass-rushing third-down specialist, providing explosiveness and pop from the Sam position and taking on slower tackles at the edge. His speed allowed him to victimize opponents and penetrate the backfield despite his relative lack of experience, providing a glimpse of the type of player he would eventually be for the Tide.

He was also a human torpedo on special teams, blistering opposing return men and helping Alabama keep opponents on a long field. As a freshman, Evans recorded 15 total tackles (including tying for the team lead in special teams tackles with 12). On defensive downs (not special teams), he only recorded three tackles…but of those three, two were tackles for loss and one was a sack. He was also credited with three quarterback hurries, stats which hinted at his future as a pass rusher extraordinaire.

Evans continued in his sophomore year as a role player for Alabama, coming in on passing downs to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines and terrorize quarterbacks. A glimpse at his stats would indicate a potential sophomore slump: Evans only recorded 10 total tackles despite playing defense and special teams in all 14 games. However, true to his limited role as a pass rusher, four of those tackles were sacks. At the end of the season, the Tide had another championship and it appeared that Evans would have an expanded role as an edge rusher in his junior campaign.

However, Saban had other plans for the athletic, dynamic playmaker. With a need for another veteran inside linebacker on the roster to pair alongside Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton, Evans selflessly rotated to a position inside. Though he was still used as an edge rusher at times when speed was needed around the end, Evans thrived after moving inside, enjoying his best year to date in crimson. The junior linebacker recorded 53 tackles, four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble return, six quarterback hurries, and two passes broken up.

At season’s end, Evans spurned a chance to go pro, choosing instead to return to Alabama to make good on another potential title run after seeing his team fall to Clemson in the final moments of the 2016 National Championship Game. It proved to be the right move for the linebacker, as he not only had his best statistical year in crimson as a senior, but he also further proved his worth and versatility as an athlete, providing examples of his ability as a pass rusher, his penchant for nosing out the run, and his skill in dropping into coverage in the slot.

In his final campaign at the Capstone, Evans finished the season with 74 tackles, 13 tackles for loss (team lead), seven quarterback hurries (team lead), six sacks (second on the team), three passes broken up, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Possibly the most impressive note on his senior season is that Evans accomplished these lofty numbers as a member of a defense loaded with future NFL talent, and he did so in only 10 games after suffering numerous injuries during his final campaign.

While 2017 was obviously Evans’ best year of collegiate ball, it was his performance on the game’s grandest stages that cemented his station in Crimson Tide history. In the first-round rubber match with top-ranked Clemson, who Alabama had faced in the previous two title games, Evans was a defensive juggernaut. He recorded a whopping nine tackles, a sack, and a pass broken up. In the National Championship against his former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, he enjoyed another dominant outing with eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. When the game’s final seconds ticked away, it was freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass that was top of mind for many observers. But it was the Tide defense, led by Evans, that made it all possible, as the linebacker and his cohorts harassed UGA QB Jake Fromm in the second half, thus allowing the Tide offense to climb back into the game and slamming the door on the Bulldogs’ title hopes.

For his dominant performance in 2017, Evans earned honors as a first-team All-American, AP first-team All-SEC performers, and a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award.

After Alabama

Evans had a great season as a senior, but it is his versatility, intelligence, speed, and athleticism that have endeared him to NFL scouts. Many pundits and scouting services have Evans rated as the second-ranked linebacker prospect behind only Georgia’s Roquan Smith. Mel Kiper has Evans as the fourth-best LB prospect, while USA Today’s Luke Easterling as him at third behind Smith and Malik Jefferson of Texas. Evans didn’t perform in the Senior Bowl after previously accepting an invitation, preferring to train privately for the upcoming NFL Combine. He has, however, accepted an invitation to the NFL Combine, where he will ply his wares before the watchful eyes of NFL scouts.

The former Tide ‘backer is attractive to multiple NFL squads because of his versatility, as he can play both inside and out with equal aplomb. Frankly, Evans can do anything any NFL team needs him to do, regardless of scheme or position. He is physical and hits like a dump truck, while retaining the speed to track down running backs to the edge and drop into coverage when needed. He has sideline-to-sideline speed, and when playing inside, attacks offenses in downhill fashion. Because of this, there is no corner of the field that is out of his reach on a given play. He excels as a pass rusher with excellent burst off the ball, shedding blocks and rolling his hips into blockers to percussive effect. He has excellent balance and textbook fundamentals, making him a lethal tackler in space.

Evans can make an immediate impact for the team that drafts him this spring, and depending on the scheme in which he plays, he could be a Day 1 starter (much like another former Tide linebacker, C.J. Mosley.) Evans has a similar skill set to the one possessed by Mosley, and there’s no reason to believe that the team lucky enough to draft him will get a similar player who can do everything at a high level, and do it with high character and leadership.

While the jury is out on where Evans will go specifically, he is projected as a potential first-round pick, though depending on the fickle nature of the teams on the board, a fall to the early second round wouldn’t be a total shock. Both the Bills and Saints are in the market for what Evans can offer, so it’s possible that the speedy, agile linebacker could see himself a hot commodity early in the draft process.

(To see a collection of Evans’ best moments from his senior campaign, click here. To see highlights from his junior season at Alabama, this is your link. If you want to see some of the most impressive plays in Evans’ storied Tide career, take a look at this.)