Virginia Tech's Evans facing high expectations

April, 21, 2009
4/21/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

BLACKSBURG, Va., -- It was the first time -- but not the last -- that Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans would plop dejectedly into the chair in assistant coach Billy Hite's office for a heart-to-heart.

Hite can remember Evans sitting across from him as a freshman in 2007, "crying his eyes out," homesick for his newborn son, James, and frustrated with the transformation from high school hero to rookie redshirt lost on the scout team. Evans was ready to pack his bags and head back to Indianapolis.

 
  AP Photo/Don Petersen
  Against Maryland last season, Darren Evans became the first Virginia Tech freshman to rush for more than 200 yards in a game.

"I just told him your time is coming," Hite remembered. "I said, 'When you think about it Darren, you've got to get through September, October, November and December, and it's your turn.' And sure enough, it became his turn."

And last season, Evans made the most of it.

After battling his way back from fourth-string on the depth chart -- fourth string -- Evans rushed for 1,256 yards last year and broke the single-game rushing record against Maryland with 253 yards. This spring, he has been overshadowed again, this time by the hype surrounding redshirt freshman Ryan Williams. Evans, though, is the most productive of the group, a quiet leader who, like the entire program, is shouldering higher expectations this fall. The difference this spring, though, is that Evans hasn't gotten a lot of reps, and that's because the staff already knows what he can do.

"It's a lot different from last year," Evans said. "I was really learning a lot last year, now it's kind of a review. This year, I know the expectations are high, but I know that a lot of people are excited about Ryan Williams, so that kind of cools it off for me. He probably has the bigger expectations because he's so much of a hit around here."

There is no animosity between the tailbacks, but their different personalities are reflective of their styles. Williams bring that flash, the shake-and-bake coach Frank Beamer calls "do-dad," and he's got a contagious smile. Evans, 20, is straightforward, has learned to take everything in stride, and is more of a power runner.

"Last year, Darren was kind of in the same position I was," Williams said. "... He's a great player, you can't take nothing from him. He blocks well, runs well, catches well. I mean, he does everything you need a running back to do. He practices every day like it's a game. Even though we both have two totally different running styles, we complement each other on the field and can change the pace of the game at any time."

While those outside the program wonder how Hite is going to divvy up the carries this fall -- Josh Oglesby has also had an impressive spring, and Kenny Lewis is expected to return this fall -- Hite said the decision will be made just like it was a year ago. At the end of the spring, Hite will call his players together and let them know how the summer will play out.

"Everybody always asks me how do you make a decision who's going to play?" Hite said. "I don't make the decision. They do. Whoever is playing the best, that's who's going to be out there. That's what happened with [Evans]."

Not without a little push, though, from Hite.

Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Evans found himself in Hite's office again.

Evans wasn't in good shape, and he had fallen down the depth chart to fourth-string tailback behind Lewis, Oglesby and Jahre Cheeseman.

"I said, 'You're going to be left out if you don't pick it up from here on out,'" Hite said. "'I'm going to end up passing you over because of your performance.' He wasn't happy about that, I can tell you."

Evans worked harder, but he was also forced up the depth chart at the expense of his teammates. Branden Ore was kicked off the team, Lewis injured his shoulder and during the season his Achilles, and Cheeseman broke his fibula.

Evans and Oglesby shared the No. 2 spot in last year's spring game behind Dustin Pickle. Evans, though, emerged as the leader after Lewis tore his Achilles tendon against Western Kentucky. Evans finished third in the ACC in rushing last season with an average of 90.4 yards per game. He scored 11 touchdowns -- third behind Florida State's Antone Smith (16) and Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer (12).

"I think you saw Darren get faster as the year went along," Beamer said. "It totally came from experience. I don't know how many times Billy Hite and I were watching film and he was just a step slow getting through the hole. He just lacked a step being where he needed to be. And then as he got more confident and more experienced, that step came, and all of a sudden I use the expression he just played fast there at the end of the year."

His performance against Maryland might have been the one to define his season, and it was definitely the one that introduced him to college football fans. He became the first freshman at Virginia Tech to rush for more than 200 yards in a game, and he also caught two passes for 20 yards in the 23-13 win to finish with 273 all-purpose yards. Usually, Hite will tell his player how proud he is of them during Monday morning's film sessions, but he wouldn't let Evans get off the field that night before he told him.

Evans was cornered by the media in the interview room after the game, and by the next day, it seemed as if everyone knew his name -- and his son's.

"I went out the following day, and people starting asking about my son, James, and going out to anywhere -- restaurants, walking down the street, it was recognition," he said. "As far as on the field, that's when the game slowed down for me and I was starting to figure out what to do on this play and the next. That's when things really clicked."

Evans said he's become better at reading defenses, and now has a better understanding of how to study film and what to look for.

"It was a big rush," Evans said of last fall, "just because nobody expected it, including me. I didn't expect that type of season."

This year, he does, and he's not the only one.

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