MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — A half-hour after the Michigan football team’s season ended in a 33-32 loss, Chris Evans walked around the Wolverines’ locker room with an Orange Bowl program and a marker.
Looking like a young sports fan getting the chance to meet his heroes, the freshman running back went from locker to locker, asking for signatures on the program’s front cover.
Evans walked up to quarterback Shane Morris, a redshirt junior who is rumored to be playing elsewhere next year as a graduate transfer. He made his way to wide receiver Amara Darboh, a fifth-year senior who had just caught a 2-point conversion to give Michigan a three-point lead before Florida State ultimately snatched it away. And finally, Evans found the leader of his position group, senior running back De’Veon Smith, waiting for him in the middle of the room, happy to inscribe his name on the blue-and-white cover.
Those were just three of many players who were facing the end of their careers as Wolverines after the loss, and Evans wanted to make sure he remembered them all.
“I came into this game saying, ‘I’m just gonna play for the seniors,’ so I feel like we let them down,” he said. “So I just wanted to get that. … (They were) really impactful on me. I came in to really nobody being there for me, to the seniors like De’Veon coming to me (all the time). So (if) I just keep riding with them, good things happen.”
Evans himself didn’t let anyone down with his play — his 49 yards on the ground and 6.1 yards per play both were team highs, and his 30-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter nearly stood as the game-winning score with under two minutes to play. (“I thought we had it in the bag,” he said.)
But the Seminoles answered with a go-ahead touchdown, and though another freshman — safety/linebacker Josh Metellus — contributed to Michigan by returning a blocked extra point for two points, the Wolverines couldn’t retake the lead.
Thinking about the heartbreaking ending for Smith and the rest of the seniors, Evans couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
“It was all for the seniors,” he said. “All the hard work that we put in — especially for the young guys. The coaches were saying, ‘Do it for the seniors, this game is for them.’”
It was especially personal for the running backs, who blossomed under senior leadership in 2016. Evans praised Smith’s openness, saying that he felt like he could go to him for anything, from “girl problems” to football questions.
Fellow freshman running back Kareem Walker — who redshirted and had to take some time away from football to catch up on his academics earlier this season — echoed the importance of having a role model to look up to during his tumultuous first year on campus.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a very humbling experience. You’ve got guys like (Smith) who’ve really done a lot. … I could feel like I’m doing bad, and he’ll tell me, ‘No, you’re not doing bad at all.’ Our relationship really got a lot stronger as the year went on, and things starting going well for me.”
Evans and Walker are part of what could be the first of many talented recruiting classes to come to Ann Arbor in the coming years, and the class has already shown plenty of promise. For example, Evans’ 614 rushing yards were good for second on the team, and he has a chance to be Michigan’s featured back next year.
But when the Wolverines resume practice in the spring, Smith and the rest of this year’s senior leaders won’t be around to guide them anymore.
“I feel like next year I’ve gotta come back and be able to be a whole different player,” Evans said. “To fill the role of De’Veon, it’s gonna be hard. He’s so experienced in all the little things, and it’s just gonna be hard filling that hole.”
In the meantime, though, Evans will have his Orange Bowl program, a collection of all the names that helped carve the path for his class to follow. And with big shoes to fill and a season-ending loss hanging over the team’s heads, Evans says they already feel like it’s time to get back to work.