The presence of a freshman wide receiver dressed but not involved on the field is nothing new. But when that pass catcher had previously contributed each week, including a career best four-reception outing prior to his initial benching, well, that tends to raise a few eyebrows.
Shaquelle Evans had an eventful, if not enjoyable first season in the college game.
He was singled out by former head coach Charlie Weis in August camp as a potential early contributor and debuted as a slot receiver in the season-opener vs. Nevada.
The following week at Michigan, Evans produced two catches in late relief of an injured Michael Floyd, but a poorly run comeback route – at the absolute worst time – became the visible error for fans to ponder in the head-shaking 38-34 loss in The Big House.
Evans bounced back, becoming the fourth freshmen wide receiver of the decade (Jeff Samardzija, Duval Kamara, and Floyd the others) to haul in at least four passes in a single game – October 3 in a 37-30 overtime win vs. Washington.
And then, for reasons rumored but never made public by the player or his former coach, Shaquelle Evans disappeared from the Irish game plan. Completely.
Through the season's final seven contests, Evans was never targeted for another pass and barely saw the field, earning only late 4th Quarter garbage time snaps in a neutral site blowout of Washington State.
Effort Assured, but Focus the KeyRegime changes generally allow an influx of new contributors to enjoy increased production. When Brian Kelly was hired, Shaq Evans was atop the first group of players I targeted for such improvement.
After watching Evans over the course of the spring, I believe there will be a few growing pains in the process.
By his own admission, Evans has matured since last fall. He's grateful for a new opportunity and with better communication filtering through all levels of the program, knows what's expected of him and his fellow receivers. But old habits can be hard to break (The media practice viewing time has increased but still represents a small sample of the overall proceedings, so take each criticism and comment as one man's opinion):
- Attention to detail: Brian Kelly's intense practice sessions tested the players' mental focus. On more than one occasion, Evans was critiqued for elements of his craft over which he has complete control (such as a sloppy pre-snap stance). New tight ends coach Mike Denbrock mentioned in January that it was the players' job to make a positive impression on the new staff – to earn playing time through consistent performance. Lack of focus and attention to detail by a sophomore receiver elicits the opposite reaction.
- Knowledge of his craft: Whether you've played football your entire life, simply in the backyard, or only experienced the sport through video games, somewhere along the way you learned that a slant route, especially at the goal line, should be run in front of the defense. Which is why I was shocked to see Evans (not the first receiver in the drill) inexplicably run behind a stationary defender (a coach, no less) while practicing the slant route. (Its equivalent to a basketball layup line drill in which a player uses his right hand on the left side of the hoop.)
Evans obviously knows how to run a slant, and the two receivers that preceded him in the drill offered a road map to clear up any confusion. But those mental errors will turn a potential No. 3 wide receiver into the No. 6-7 option in a hurry. (The head-shaking rep did not go unnoticed by his position coach.)
- Concentration: He's not alone in this regard, but Evans still drops far too many passes (in fairness to the youngster, everyone from Duval Kamara, to Deion Walker, to Barry Gallup seemed to struggle to catch the ball in practice and in the spring game). Evans has does not have bad hands (read below), so multiple drops are inexcusable for a player battling for a starting role.
The criticisms listed above were offered to set up the following:
I believe Shaquelle Evans is Notre Dame's next top tier wide receiver (and I did not feel the same midway through 2009).
He's at least as big as listed (6'1" 205 pounds); a rarity in the college game and a necessary ingredient for player looking to take hits over the middle for 39 more contests.
He's both quick and straight-line fast (former head coach Charlie Weis noted the presence of the latter), with quickness serving as the crucial element to his present game: Evans showed a suddenness in the open field during the Blue Gold Game that can't be taught, effortlessly making two defenders miss after the catch on separate plays.
He has strong hands: After a concentration drop early in the Blue Gold Game (a seam route hit him in the chest), Evans' plucked a full-speed crossing route out of the air and maintained his balance to scratch out extra yards. Aside from Michael Floyd, I'm not sure any other Irish receiver could have made a similar play while remaining upright. Evans could be a "YAC" (yards-after-catch) machine in future seasons.
Which brings us to the final point: Evans will no longer be a stationary target. In 2009, six of his seven receptions occurred with his back to the defense (hook routes or comebacks), and each of the nine passes thrown in Evans' direction landed outside the hash marks. The routes were both predictable and limiting. In Kelly's spread offense, Evans will be allowed to make plays in space – stressing the defense in an attack that will capitalize on his athletic gifts.
Consistent production awaits the Irish sophomore – it's up to Evans to determine the start date.
Evans' Best of 2009
- Michigan: Pressed into late action due to an injury to Michael Floyd, Evans caught two hook routes. He showed his strength on the latter, gaining three yards after the catch.
- Purdue: Evans executed two key blocks – both benefitting Jonas Gray. The first gave Gray room on a 19-yard reception; the second a crack back block to allow Gray room to the outside in the second half. Evans also showed good concentration while catching a comeback route despite losing his shoe on his cut.
- Washington: A career-best 4 receptions for 34 yards, the highlight a 13-yard catch and run in which he gained four extra yards after a simple hook route outside. Evans added a solid seal block outside to help spring Robert Hughes for 10 extra yards at the end of Hughes' season-best 37-yard run.
Evans' Moments to forget in 2009
- Michigan: With just over 2 minutes remaining, the Irish faced 3rd and 10 from their own 29-yard line. Evans was targeted for a comeback route – a catch would have sealed the victory. The freshman was late coming out of his break (and never broke back to the ball) and Jimmy Clausen's perfect pass sailed harmlessly out of bounds, forcing an Irish punt. The Wolverines drove for the game-winning score on the ensuing drive.
- Purdue: Clausen's first interception of the season occurred on a jump ball to Evans in the back corner of the end zone. Though Evans shouldn't have made the catch, he showed no fight vs. solo coverage, barely challenging for position and never making a full attempt to at least break up the ill-advised pass.
- The Bye Week: When Evans left campus for October Break, the Irish were 4-1 and the freshman wide receiver had just produced career highs in yards and receptions. He failed to play another meaningful snap upon his return through the duration of the season.