"Special" Chris Evans makes most of college debut

Saturday, September 3, 2016 - 6:49pm

Chris Evans' Michigan debut was a successful one.

Chris Evans' Michigan debut was a successful one. Buy this photo
Grant Hardy/Daily

 

Chris Evans doesn’t like wearing his contacts.

The freshman running back only sheds his glasses in games because once, in high school, they flew out of his helmet when he took a hit. He wouldn’t need the contacts at all if he weren’t farsighted, which is funny because on Saturday, Evans was the one who must have seemed like a blur up close.

Evans ran for 112 yards in Michigan’s 63-3 win over Hawaii, the most in school history for a true freshman running back making his debut. All through training camp, teammates and coaches raved about Evans and his ability to make plays in space, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the team plans to use Evans in a variety of ways, including returns and as a receiver. Against the Rainbow Warriors, it wasn’t hard to see why.

“He really can do everything you’d want a back to do,” Harbaugh said. “He blocks. He runs the ball between the tackles. He can run on the edge. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s a good contributor on special teams as well. There’s a lot of ways he’ll be used. He’s a special player.”

Evans said he knew he would get the ball in the Wolverines’ season opener. He just didn’t know he would get it quite so much. His first carry came on the Wolverines’ third drive — though it was functionally their second, since Wilton Speight threw an interception on their first — and he took it for seven yards. Then Speight gave him the ball again. And then again.

By halftime, he already had seven carries — the most of any Michigan ball carrier — and his seventh was his most impressive. With the Wolverines leading 28-0 with just over six minutes left in the first half, Evans took a toss going left, stiff-armed one tackler, shook off another, and dove to the pylon for his first college touchdown.

“It was just crazy,” Evans said. “I’ve seen the big house roar, but I’ve never seen it roar for me.”

And the way the play unfolded was special in its own right.

“Everything Coach Wheatley said this week, I did it,” Evans said. “We’ve been practicing stiff arms all week, I got a stiff arm. And one of the pylon plays, something happened in practice, and he said, ‘Make sure you get the ball on the pylon.’ And through my head I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to make sure I get it, what he said.’ ”

On his next and final carry, he needed no such frills. He went straight up the middle, untouched, for a 43-yard touchdown. There wasn’t ever a question of whether he was fast — Evans was a star hurdler at Ben Davis (Ind.) High School — but on this play he just shot through the hole. By the time he hit the line of scrimmage, three Rainbow Warriors appeared to have a shot at Evans, and a fourth soon threw off a block to join them. It just didn’t matter.

Evans split them down the middle, leaving one defender flat on his stomach after colliding with an official and the other three hopelessly chasing him.

In case his first score didn’t do the trick, this touchdown drew another thunderous applause from the Big House crowd. And all of this from a player who, when he arrived, felt relatively unknown. Evans didn’t carry the hype that Rashan Gary or Brandon Peters did, and he said he wondered, when he first arrived, if he belonged at Michigan.

“After two days of training camp, we all knew who Chris Evans was,” Speight said.

Now, so does the Michigan fan base. And while the Hawaii rush defense is far from a reliable measuring stick, don’t expect Evans to turn shy when stronger defenses present themselves. When Michael Jordan spoke to the team last night, Evans was the first Wolverine to speak up and ask Jordan a question. About a week and a half ago, he had felt a little sick in practice, so he decided to ask Jordan about his famous “flu game” and how he fought through it.

It says something that the freshman didn’t shy away from breaking the ice with an all-time great athlete. And that confidence extended to the football field against Hawaii.

“In high school, I was kind of like, ‘Oh, I hope he blocks him, I hope he blocks him,’ ” Evans recalled. “But out there today, I was like, ‘All right, I know he’s going to block him, I know he’s going to block him,’ so it’s really on me. It’s really on me to do it because I know everything’s going to be perfect.”

Saturday, it was close.