Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Catch the Lee Evans show

Lee Evans answers questions at spring football practice like an old minor-league baseball veteran. He’ll grin wide and flash a confident smile that almost draws attention away from how big his arms have gotten since the fall and speak like someone who has been around the game forever.

His questioners might believe he has, if it helps. After all, they are his teammates — not reporters; that will come later — younger wide receivers and defensive backs who want to see what he sees, learn how he became so good at exploiting defenses, and mimic or adjust accordingly.

“Lee is not only a good player, but he’s also a great teacher,” says redshirt freshman Jonathan Orr. “In the offseason he taught me a lot of little inside things about being a receiver here.”

Evans admits he has done a bit more coaching during this, the prelude to his senior year. His 2,255-career receiving yards come as credentials enough for underclassmen seeking his feedback.

They chew on the advice like young eager-eyed ballplayers wanting to find out what life is like in “the show,” but Evans does not pretend to be a grizzled professional. He had his chance, and deferred it.

“I wanted to stay, just to be in the college atmosphere and to be in the college life,” Evans said at his January press conference.

So now he takes Orr and the tightly knit group of receivers under his wing, inviting them to his apartment for a round of video games or what he calls “typical stuff that college students do.”

“It’s important just to have a team chemistry, not with the receivers but anybody. I kick it with B.J. [Tucker], he’s on defense — as long as you’re close as a team you’ll have a chance,” Evans says. “I mean, I done kicked it with a lot of people on this team. I can’t say I’ve kicked it with everybody, but I’m the type of person where if you want to kick it with me, let’s do it.”

And then there is the on-field coaching. But Lee Evans has always claimed less of a vocal presence on the team, leading by example instead. Evans’ advice might help develop a young flanker’s skills, but his “let’s play” attitude can rub off on the whole team.

That is why, on hot spring afternoons when the next meaningful game is still sixth months away, you can see Evans diving onto the turf, leaping out of bounds or dropping to his knees to catch a ball thrown low by one of the green-clad Badgers’ quarterbacks.

Evans wears a green No. 3 jersey too: Nobody can touch him in scrimmages.

But unlike the fragile QBs, he does not have a history of injury. The coaches just deem him too valuable to risk; they’re lucky to have him as it is.

Evans declined the opportunity to leave school in the offseason and declare for the NFL draft, a chance he opened for himself with a spectacular 2001 fall.

The numbers looked like he was already in the league. He set a Big Ten record for yards, a school mark in catches and was a Biletnikoff finalist. He was consistent and a gamebreaker at once, piling up nine 100-yard games while demonstrating a remarkable talent for finding defensive seams, which led to 15 catches of at least 35 yards.

Evans showed tools that, even at his slight 5-foot-11, led professional scouts to drool. But the little wideout from Bedford, Ohio, who had so recently burst onto the college scene, did not think he was ready.

“I just felt more comfortable staying here than I would have felt making that jump,” Evans says. “A lot of things came up on me quickly, and I knew I didn’t know everything. So I figured if you just take a step back, you can learn a lot more and just mature that way.”

Since, he has watched teammates Wendell Bryant and Mike Echols prepare and how they are preparing themselves for this weekend’s NFL draft. Their focus is solely individual, trying to be picked as highly as possible.

Now that time separates him from the decision, Evans says he is focused on other things — like a winning season.

“The team is what’s important now,” Evans says. “We’re in the middle of spring ball; the coaches need to see what they need to see; we need to accomplish what we need to accomplish and get better as players.”

How do you follow a season in which you broke the school receiving record by 625 yards? Possibly, by adding a new component to your game.

After he was clocked at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash at pro day, spring practice has seen No. 3 returning punts, something he has not done since his days at Bedford High. In the coaches’ minds, expanding the number of touches for an electric player like Evans outweighs the risk of losing the offensive star to a needless injury.

“Any time I can get the ball, it’s good. I want the ball in my hands,” Evans says. “I want to be a difference-maker on this team, and I think that’s the way I’m looked at.”

Evans has a different style, certainly, and not just the way he calls people “cats” or hangs around with occasionally pompadour-coifed Echols. He is a sort of player Wisconsin has never seen, a high-flying aerial assassin making his name with his athletic ability rather than brute force.

He is already the most productive receiver in UW history, last year passing Al Toon who played eight NFL seasons for the New York Jets. He may yet be behind Alan Ameche and Ron Dayne in Badger lore, but he brings the potential to change the program’s identity from that of those backfield bruisers to one of speed and artistry.

Besides, he still has a season of eligibility to earn the distinction Dayne and Ameche share.

Wisconsin’s spring football prospectus lists Evans as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Might the increased exposure at punt returner be the spark of his campaign, “á l?” recent hopefuls Antwaan Randle El and Charles Woodson?

Evans says no, pointing out that one has to win to be considered for the award.

“Look at Ron, with some of the things he did. He had a lot of hype around him too, but they were winning, and they were doing a lot of good things, and I think that’s where it stems from,” he says. “You’ve got to look at the success of the team first, and if you have success at the team, those things will come.”

Nevertheless, Evans finds himself in a very individual role. Everywhere he goes, people recognize him. He cannot always do “typical stuff that college students do.” It’s almost as if he carries last season’s 1,545 yards, 75 catches and nine touchdowns with him everywhere — even if he does not notice them, others will.

Asked what life is like for Lee Evans now, the receiver breaks his normally cool conversational stride. He fiddles with his shoulder pads and struggles to decide if he is just like everybody else or different.

Evans goes on to explain how he has to be more cautious these days, aware of the consequences of his own actions and careful of those who might manipulate him.

He knows he is influenced by those surrounding him, so most of his friends are on the football team.

“People who don’t play, they don’t really understand,” Evans says. “I kick it with people who can relate with some of the stuff I’m gonna go through and help them. B.J. [Tucker], Byron [Brown]. I still hang out with Mike [Echols] and those guys. Stephon [Watson], Jesse [Mayfield].”

He says his friends do not treat him like Heisman Candidate Lee Evans, adding that it would be a problem if they did. Jonathan Orr notices at least one difference, however. If Evans is as relaxed as ever off the field, he is even looser on it.

That is ‘college student’ Lee Evans coming through, a difficult decision behind him and a challenging season far ahead.

“College is fun. Once you get to the NFL it’s a business,” Evans says. “College is different, you can come back and enjoy the game and the money will be there later.”

There are fewer responsibilities, and he is in control. Lee Evans has to worry a little bit about school, and a lot about blocking and running routes, but little else.

And for now, at least, he does not have to tell the young players what its like up in “the show.” He is the show.

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