Jordan Evans fills the void in Oklahoma's defense

Losing your leading returning tackler before the season begins is never a good scenario.

But it was a scenario that became real when the Oklahoma State Supreme Court upheld the University of Oklahoma’s year-long suspension of Sooners linebacker Frank Shannon, who led the squad with 92 tackles in 2013.

Instead, Oklahoma’s linebackers haven’t skipped a beat.

Sophomore Jordan Evans has stepped in the fill the void seamlessly, showing the versatility and athleticism that allowed him to return kicks and play multiple positions at Norman (Oklahoma) North High School. Five games into the 2013 season, Shannon had 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 hurries and one interception. Five games into this season, Evans has 35 tackles -- including a team-high 26 solo stops -- two forced fumbles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one interception.

“He’s real comfortable in the defense,” cornerback Zack Sanchez said. “He flies around, his motor doesn’t stop and he’s constantly making plays for us.”

At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, Evans combines the size of a linebacker with the athleticism of a defensive back. His interception against TCU was an example of his unique ball skills, and his 26 solo tackles is a sign he can excel in one-on-one situations. His emergence as a playmaker isn't completely unexpected. Evans saw limited playing time as a true freshman but showed glimpses of his athleticism on special teams and defense.

“Jordan is athletic, people don’t know how athletic he is,” cornerback Zack Sanchez said. “He flies around from sideline to sideline making plays.”

Shannon’s suspension could have been a hurdle for any defensive success the Sooners hoped to have. Instead Evans is second on the team in tackles and seems to be getting more and more comfortable with each passing game.

“[Against] Tennessee I got a little more feel, and each week I’m building on it,” Evans said. “I’m happy where I’m at but definitely striving to get better. I’m a lot better linebacker than I was last year.”

OU’s home game against Tennessee was Evans’ first true test as a starter after being thrown out the game for targeting against Louisiana Tech and making a minimal impact against Tulsa. Evans responded with nine tackles against the Volunteers then followed that performance with back-to-back double-digit-tackle performances against West Virginia (11) and TCU (10).

“He comes downhill a lot better than he did last year, he reads the quarterback better than he did last year, ” safety Quentin Hayes said. “He’s matured all over.”

Evans could be the man to watch against Texas. The Longhorns are likely to lean on their running game against the Sooners, including giving quarterback Tyrone Swoopes opportunities to use his legs. Evans could be the perfect remedy with the size and athleticism to match Swoopes in the open field while also being able to hold his own if UT tries to line up and play smashmouth with running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown.

Either way, Evans has erased any concerns about his readiness to be a starter in OU’s defense and his ability to fill the void left by Shannon. Evans showed he could handle a one-game scenario when he replaced an injured Shannon and made eight tackles in OU’s win over Texas Tech last season, but this season the sophomore has become one of the most productive defenders on a defense full of active athletes.

“Going back to the [Texas] Tech game when he had to step in for Frank, I felt like he had a really good game. There was a lot of pressure on him, but I felt like he made a lot of plays for us so I just knew the kind of player he was heading into this year.” Sanchez said. “He’s a really special linebacker.”