After spending the majority of his football career in the shadow of fellow flanker and high-school teammate from Bedford, Ohio, Chris Chambers, Lee Evans is ready to shine.
Evans took over the starting duties at receiver when Chambers graduated and took his game to Wisconsin. Then last season, Evans replaced Chambers downfield for the Badgers when the senior starter missed four games with a Shoe Box suspension and a stress-fracture injury. Now, in his junior season at Wisconsin, Evans will replace Chambers once again — only this time it’s on a permanent basis.
But don’t expect Evans to simply settle for being Chambers’ replacement. This junior flanker is ready to make a name for himself.
“You can call me a replacement, but it’s my time now,” Evans said. “Players come and go, you know. When it’s time to shine, you’ve got to shine.”
In the Badgers’ Aug. 25 season opener against Virginia, Evans let his light shine through the overcast skies above Camp Randall.
With UW leading Virginia 19-10 with under a minute to go in the third quarter, Evans got away from the Cavs’ safety and connected with Jim Sorgi for a 38-yard reception and a touchdown.
Then, on the Badgers’ next possession, with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game, Sorgi again spotted Evans downfield and launched the ball to him. Evans went up and grabbed the ball, pulled down a 78-yard reception and added another six points to the scoreboard.
The following week against Oregon, Evans once again showcased his talents. The flanker made eight catches for a career-high 168 yards.
According to offensive coordinator Brian White, these are the kinds of plays that UW will need from Evans.
“We do expect [Evans] to make those plays,” White said. “We need him to. He’s a playmaker, he’s a big-play guy and has been since he’s been playing for us, and he certainly proved that today.”
Evans proved his worth against Virginia, but it wasn’t the first time he’s shown signs of his talent.
With 29 seconds left in Wisconsin’s Oct. 14 game against Michigan State last season, Sorgi launched a 45-yard pass downfield to Evans. The Badger flanker made the reception, scored the touchdown and gave UW its first conference victory of the season.
A fluke? Not for Evans. The junior backed up his performance with other big games against Indiana (77 yards) and UCLA (86 yards).
But while Evans’ talent remains, the expectations have changed for the receiver and his catching abilities. Instead of being the backup that successfully stepped up in the absence of the starter, Evans is now the go-to guy downfield.
“Last year, I was put in the position where I had to step up,” Evans said. “This year I’m in the position where people are looking for me to step up, be a big-play guy and do even more of the things that I did last year.”
But the pressure doesn’t bother Evans. Being able to make the big plays is the part he likes best about being a receiver. He wants the ball thrown to him, and he wants the opportunity to make the big catch.
“That’s why you come to play college football,” Evans said. “You want to be the guy in the spotlight.”
This attitude is nothing new to the receiving position. The same mentality was held by none other than Chambers. Although Evans said he hates to compare himself to any other player, he does attest to the fact that he and Chambers hold the same agenda downfield.
“He considers himself a playmaker, and when the ball’s up in the air I like to go up and get it too,” Evans said.
And according to Evans’ teammates, the similarities between Chambers and Evans go beyond their game plan.
“They’re a little different athletes, but they both have a ton of athletic ability,” quarterback Brooks Bollinger said. “They’re very just God-gifted and both understand the offense well, and they do a great job.”
As for the differences between the two players, Bollinger said the two receivers are too similar to come up with a difference. And Evans? He won’t risk accidentally offending his mentor and predecessor by commenting on whether or not he has positives that Chambers didn’t have.
The one area that could be a concrete difference between the two Ohio natives is the total number of reception opportunities.
With the newly incorporated spread offense in Wisconsin’s game plan, Evans could potentially have more reception opportunities than Chambers did, as UW hopes to give more attention to the passing game this season.
“It’s like, ‘All right, maybe I won’t just catch two passes today,'” Evans said of the opportunities the spread offense gives him. “I’ve got the opportunity to catch eight now, or something like that.”
But don’t look for Evans to rub his higher number of receptions in the face of his former teammate. Evans attests that Chambers taught him a lot, and that the former Badger still gives him advice. Chambers even came back during NFL training camp to show Evans a few new things he picked up from the pros.
As for resenting the constant comparisons to lifelong teammate Chambers, Evans is far from it.
“One day I hope to be in his shoes,” Evans said of the Dolphin rookie.
Evans has had Chambers’ shoes handed down to him for the majority of his football career. Before the NFL-issued cleats are tossed his way, he will first get to bask in his own spotlight.