IOWA CITY, Iowa - Joe Evans has always been a Hawkeye fan, even when he lived in Ames. He’s always sported his black and gold loyalty on his chest.
“I’d be wearing all my Hawkeye stuff along with my twin sister, Sarah,” Joe recalled. “We’d get comments like, “Hey, you’ve got a stain on your shirt.’ You just kind of lived with it.” As Joe got older, and his football career blossomed, he attended several Iowa-Iowa State football games at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.
“I’d have my Hawkeye gear on,” he said.
On Saturday, when the Hawkeyes return to Jack Trice Stadium to square off with Iowa State, Evans will be there in Hawkeye gear once again. But this time it will be an Iowa uniform. No. 13. The former Ames High School quarterback is now a 6-2, 248-pound defensive end and a valuable piece in Iowa’s front-line rotation.
“He’s really done well in terms of creating a role for himself, more than just a guy who comes in on third down,” said Kelvin Bell, Iowa’s defensive line coach. “He looks a little bit different than everyone else out there. But he knows what to do. And that’s more than half the battle.”
The fact that Joe is living out his Hawkeye dream is one of college football’s feel-good stories. He was a linebacker at Ames High as a sophomore. Then starting quarterback Michael Frankl was injured. His backup, Ethan Hahn, also got hurt.
“And then I got thrown in with the wolves,” Joe said.
He started the rest of his sophomore season at quarterback, but he wasn’t the family’s first signal caller. Joe’s dad, Spence, the principal at Ames High at the time, had been a walk-on quarterback at Iowa until a knee injury ended his career.
“That’s why I played quarterback,” Joe said. “I looked up to him.”
Evans played strictly quarterback as a junior, then played quarterback and linebacker as a senior.
Former Iowa assistant Coach Reese Morgan, now retired, was a master at evaluating talent. He thought Evans could play college football and started the recruiting process. One day in the winter of Joe’s senior year, snow had cancelled classes. And a forgettable day became an unforgettable one.
“I was driving, and I still remember where I was,” Joe said. “It was by our aquatics center. I got this message from my coach (Bruce Vertanen). He said, “Do you have any time to stop in?’ I said, “Of course, coach.’ He said, “Coach (Seth) Wallace from Iowa is here.’ And I’m like, ‘No way.’ I called my mom and dad instantly and said, “You’ve not going to believe this, Coach Wallace is in the building right now.’ I remember Coach Morgan came down a couple of times, too.”
Iowa was looking at Evans as a linebacker. He also had a walk-on opportunity from Iowa State and was considering Iowa Western of Council Bluffs, a school that had produced future Hawkeyes like Nick Easley and Daviyon Nixon.
“I thought maybe I’d go there and work my way up,” said Evans, who passed for 2,438 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior and ran for 771 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the pull of Iowa, and the chance to make it at his dream school, is the road he pursued. “The simple thing is Iowa gives walk-ons the greatest opportunity in the country,”
Evans said. “You come in here and you don’t know who is a walk-on and who is on scholarship. In my recruiting process I really looked at that. I looked at where I was going to get my shot. I knew I had that at Iowa.”
Joe redshirted in 2018, and had to learn a new position when the coaches switched him from linebacker to defensive end. He was a fast learner.
“What happened with Joe is he took advantage of an opportunity,” Bell said. “We had a guy in 2019 who just wasn’t getting it done the way we wanted it done. And Joe kept showing up in practice. He got an opportunity to show us what he could do.”
Evans got his first significant action in a 20-0 victory at Northwestern in the eighth game of that 2019 season.
“I told him on the Tuesday of that week, “Joe, you’re going to get a sack this week,’ ” Bell recalled. “Because he’d been getting sacks all practice. On the last defensive play of that game, he got a sack.”
Evans tackled the Wildcats’ Aidan Smith for a 6-yard loss.
“It started in practice, with his preparation,” Bell said. “Regardless of where he was on the depth chart, he just kept working.”
Two games later, Minnesota came to Kinnick Stadium undefeated and ranked No. 8. Iowa won the game, 23-19. Evans and A.J. Epenesa shared a sack of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan early in the fourth quarter. And on the Gophers final drive of the game, Evans sacked Morgan on first down.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” Joe said. “Everyone rushed the field, and I got to see my parents and my brother (Teddy) and give them a big old hug. We got a good picture of the family.”
Evans had a solid sophomore season in 2020. Late that season came another career-changing moment. In early December, the week of the Wisconsin game, Coach Kirk Ferentz told Joe he was being put on scholarship.
“It’s really a great feeling because you’re just saying thanks to somebody who’s really demonstrated taking the initiative and really doing a great job,” Ferentz said. “And Joe has just been going hard since he’s been here. He just has such a high motor. And then the question was is he going to be big enough to do some things and all that, But I remember out here, the Minnesota game in 2019, he helped give us a little juice out there. And he’s just one of those guys. He goes hard. Everything he does in first class. He just continues to keep getting better and better. It’s fun to watch those guys develop and grow.”
Spence Evans and his wife, Abby, now live in Tipton, where he is the high school principal. On the day that Ferentz awarded him a scholarship, Joe called his mom and asked her to pick him up. Once her son was in the car, Abby knew something was up.
“I was just smiling,” Joe said.
When he told his parents the good news, it was another unforgettable family moment. “I wasn’t thinking about myself,” Joe said. “I thought about my parents. They believed in me, like all my family did. It was so nice to give back to them, knowing they didn’t have to worry about helping me pay for college.”
Joe is from a football family. His grandfather, Bob Evans, was a great high school coach at Mount Pleasant, compiling a 202-91-4 record in 33 seasons and being inducted into the Iowa Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1969. He also did color on radio broadcasts of Iowa football. Joe’s uncle, Chuck, coached Iowa City Regina to a state football title in 2005. Chuck also gave Bell, now his nephew’s position coach, his coaching start.
“Small world,” Bell said.
Evans has a feel for football, thanks in no small part to his family’s connection to the game. “Joe’s a football guy,” Bell said. “He’s a rockhead, too. He’s a guy that likes to put dents in things. You can really see his football acumen when he’s working with the young guys. That’s just how far he’s come along.”
This two-time football captain at Ames High School has now applied his leadership skills in college.
“What I’ve seen so far is just incredible leadership,” Bell said. “He’s done a really good job with the young guys in terms of helping them along. He’s been there from the young side, he’s been there from the walk-on side. He’s just got a really unique perspective on defensive line play and the defense here at Iowa.”
At Iowa. Where Joe Evans always wanted to be.