David Beaty doesn’t understand the criticism, yet Texas A&M’s second-year wide receivers coach hears it regularly: Mike Evans, the Aggies redshirt sophomore wideout, isn’t quick enough off the line of scrimmage. Some opponents and talent evaluators say Evans can’t get by more agile defensive backs, that he can’t outrun many corners for a deep ball.
Beaty’s response is simple: Just try and catch him.
“It’s one of the knocks on Mike that I’ve heard out there,” Beaty said, “and it’s crazy because I see him every day. He’s a lot faster than people think he is.
“If he gets behind you, you ain’t catchin’ him. He doesn’t get caught.”
Critiques of Evans have been few and far between this season. Along with quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 6-foot-5, 225-pounder is the one of the keys to A&M's high-powered attack. Evans is one of the few receivers at the college level who combines imposing physicality with an ability to shake defenders downfield. He has a school-record 1,263 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, totals that rank third and fourth nationally. He’s also ruthlessly efficient: Evans averages 22.2 yards per catch, fourth in FBS and nipping at the heels of the NCAA record set by Fresno State’s Henry Ellard (24.4) in '82.
In the Aggies’ 49-42 loss to top-ranked Alabama on Sept. 14, Evans broke free for a 95-yard fourth-quarter score, his longest of the year. He finished that game with seven catches for 279 yards. He made 11 receptions for 287 yards in a 45-41 loss to Auburn on Oct. 19, and five grabs for 116 yards in a 51-41 win over Mississippi State on Nov. 9. He’s built his reputation on making the big play.
Earlier this season, Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin lobbied for Evans as a Heisman Trophy candidate. One look at Evans’ film proves he’s a special player.
“Very rarely do you get a big receiver like that with as many plus-30-yards catches as he has,” Sumlin said on the SEC teleconference on Wednesday. “He's definitely one of the better players in the country.”
Evans racked up 1,105 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2012, but coaches knew he needed to sharpen his skill set. Both Sumlin and Beaty used the word “raw” when describing his game last year. That’s largely because Evans focused on basketball for much of his prep career; he averaged 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists as a senior at Ball High in Galveston, Texas. The Longhorns offered him a basketball scholarship even after he committed to Texas A&M for football in December 2010.
Now, Evans has become a student of the game. Once overly reliant his size and athleticism, Evans worked diligently in the offseason to improve his route running and technique. He’s also taken conditioning more seriously. The coaching staff studies NFL receivers with similar body types, such as Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald (6-3, 220 pounds), to help Evans understand how to thrive at his weight. Said Beaty: “If [his weight] gets up, he’ll be the first one to call me and say, ‘Coach I’m at 229. I need to get this down by Friday.’”
Evans’ efforts have paid off. During the second quarter of Texas A&M’s 45-33 win over Arkansas on Sept. 28, Manziel scrambled left and tossed a seven-yard pass into the middle of a congested end zone. Evans leaped up in a crowd and snagged it over Hogs’ cornerback Tevin Mitchel, who stands at 6-foot, 180 pounds. Even in a broken play or double coverage, Evans remains a nightmare to defend on 50-50 balls.
“It’s like boxers,” Beaty said. “Some people bring a punch, and some of people don’t bring as big a punch. Some of them are just blessed by the Lord. Well, Mike’s blessed. Once he puts his hands on you, he’s strong as all get-out. If you’re not careful, you’ll go to the ground.”
Stopping Evans will be one of the biggest challenges for LSU on Saturday, when the 7-3 Tigers host the 8-2 Aggies in Baton Rouge. LSU held him to only six catches for 76 yards in last year’s 24-19 win in College Station, but this year’s Tigers’ defense is a far cry from last season’s vaunted unit. LSU coach Les Miles said his team, which ranks 55th nationally in pass efficiency defense, must pay extra attention to keeping Evans in check.
“He’ a big, tall, strong man,” Miles said on the SEC teleconference. “A guy that can test for balls routinely.”
Evans likely has three games remaining in his college career. After A&M visits LSU this weekend, it will travel to Missouri for its regular-season finale on Nov. 30. After the Aggies' bowl game, Evans could bolt for the 2014 NFL draft. SI.com’s Chris Burke projected him as the 10th overall pick in his most recent Big Board.
Until then, however, Beaty will continue to laugh off criticism of Evans’ quickness. Sometimes, in the Aggies’ wide receiver meetings, players like to joke about it, too. Normally one of the quieter guys in the room, Evans isn’t afraid to speak up in such moments.
“We joke around in the room all the time,” Beaty said, “and that’s one of the things we’ll joke about. The kids always talk about who’s faster. Then Mike’s like, “Man, I’m faster than all of you guys.’”
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The other big ones
• No. 3 Baylor at No. 11 Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are fresh off a 38-13 win at Texas. The Bears are riding a school-best 13-game winning streak. Whichever team emerges will have the inside track for the Big 12 title.
• No. 19 Arizona State at No. 14 UCLA: This matchup could determine the Pac-12 South. Arizona State can lock up the division with a victory. However, UCLA has won three in a row since falling to Oregon on Oct. 26. Expect the Bruins -- and two-way star Myles Jack -- to make things interesting.
• No. 8 Missouri at No. 24 Ole Miss: Redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk helped Missouri absorb the loss of starter James Franklin (shoulder) to win three of its last four games. Now, Franklin is set to return entering the Tigers' final push for an SEC title game berth. The Rebels have won four straight, including a 27-24 victory over LSU on Oct. 19.
Time to bounce back?
• Stanford: The Cardinal became the latest victim of Ed Orgeron and resurgent USC, falling 20-17 last Saturday. Now, Stanford’s only hope of winning the Pac-12 North is a loss by Oregon over the next two weeks. Still, David Shaw’s team should make quick work of Cal, the loser of nine in a row.
• Georgia: How do the Bulldogs get the taste of that crushing, last-second 43-38 loss to Auburn out of their mouths? By welcoming Kentucky to town, of course. The Wildcats have yet to win an SEC game and have lost seven of their last eight overall.