Chris Evans strolled into the lobby of Towsley Family Museum, clad in a grey cut-off t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. The customary flattop hairstyle — a trait which he became known for last year — was still there.
What was different was Evans’ physique. The sophomore running back has made upper-body gains — significant enough that it was hard to believe that the difference between his weight Tuesday and last season was just seven pounds, up from 205 to 212.
However striking his physical difference may have been, it probably should not have been a surprise. After all, Evans simply followed through with a plan that he told to many near the end of a breakout freshman campaign, one that saw him average seven yards per carry en route to 614 total rushing yards.
As the season wound down, Evans had said he wanted to put on more weight so he could run with a more bruising style similar to last year’s starter, De’Veon Smith, while also improving his pass-blocking ability and knowledge of the offense’s concepts.
“Basically last year, I was just going out there and I had one job,” Evans said Tuesday. “(Former running backs coach Tyrone) Wheatley just made sure I had one job, because once you get two jobs and you’ve got to check this and check that, it gets crazy.
“Most of the plays that I ran (last year) were like, ‘Okay, run to this gap,’ and that’s it. During (pass) protection, you have to look coast to coast and all that, so it’s really hard.”
In short, he wanted to develop the traits of a complete back — the type of back who would earn more than the 10 combined carries Evans received against Michigan State and Ohio State.
While the jury is still out on whether Evans will be able to dole out more punishment to opposing defenses and whether he has a better grasp of the offensive scheme, he claims he has already seen improvement in his pass blocking.
It was also evident in the results from Michigan’s Spring Combine that he has retained the speed, agility and overall athleticism that made him a home run threat last year, earning recognition as the top offensive performer for his standing within his position group.
Evans finished first amongst running backs in seven out of eight tests, each designed to measure athleticism. He had the highest vertical, the best shuttle times, the farthest broad jump, and the fastest 40-yard dash time at 4.64 seconds.
While 4.64 is still plenty fast, the time may have seemed slow to many, especially given Evans’ pedigree as a high school track star. Plus, he had flashed what certainly looked like 4.4 or 4.5 speed plenty of times last year.
Evans was adamant that — even with the weight gain — he has maintained his speed, mentioning with a slight chuckle just when exactly the 4.64 time had been recorded — “It was 6:00 in the morning.”
His physical change has come during what could have been a tumultuous offseason, given that his former position coach Wheatley left Michigan for the same position with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Evans and Wheatley were close, and still are, with the former saying he still calls his old mentor nearly every other day.
“I talk to him a lot and he just tells me his side,” Evans said. “We just have long talks and stuff. … I’ll send him clips of stuff I couldn’t do last year just to be like, ‘Hey coach, I’m getting better.’ ”
The Wolverines ended up finding an in-house solution for Wheatley’s vacancy, moving Jay Harbaugh from the tight ends to running backs, which eased the transition. Evans said the younger Harbaugh’s preparation, from having meetings and slideshows on the first day back, “really blew him away”.
And Evans, a speed and “finesse” back, as fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler described, has enjoyed the change in philosophy that Harbaugh has brought to the position group as well.
“It’s a different perspective because Coach Wheatley, he had the perspective of a big back and I’m not a big back,” Evans said. “So the technique and things he was teaching me, I really couldn’t get all the way because I couldn’t relate to them. Coach Jay, he didn’t play running back, but he’s looking outside in, so he gives a different perspective of the game.”
It has been quite the eventful offseason for Evans, from the weight gain to the coaching change to the terminology that new assistant head coach and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton has installed into the offense.
What has sustained Evans through all of the work and the grueling four-hour practices is the knowledge that slowing down could result in getting passed by any of the other backs on the roster.
“All the competition in the room just makes you compete at a higher level,” Evans said. “You have to come to practice knowing your stuff, or somebody will know more and he’ll expose you.
“You’re not gonna be like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to make sure I do better than him.’ No one’s saying that, that’s just in everyone’s head. … Having that competition in the room is just going to make you go that much harder.”