It’s not uncommon for Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder to show his players video of individual opponents he respects and admires, or even to hold up individuals on other teams as examples of what the Monarchs should emulate.
Wilder has such a player this week in New Hampshire linebacker Matt Evans, who the Monarchs face Saturday in the CAA opener for both teams.
“He’s as good as any linebacker I’ve seen in all the years I’ve coached,” Wilder said.
Evans, a 6-foot, 228-pound senior from Hanover, Mass., won the Buchanan Award last season as the top defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision – the counterpart to the annual Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player.
That a defensive player from a program better known for its varied and imaginative offenses won a national award speaks to Evans’ productivity, as well as other qualities that are hard to define.
“The only way I can explain it,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said, “is he’s a football player.”
Evans is a tackling machine, a player who goes sideline to sideline and is rarely out of position or out of a play.
“The thing that I appreciate the most about him is that tackles are really important to him,” McDonnell said. “It’s a funny thing to say, but the kid wants to make every tackle he can.”
Evans’ productivity is a result of desire and experience. He’s played football since second grade, and not just played, but studied the game.
“A lot of it comes second nature to me,” Evans said. “I’ve been playing for a while. I think my instincts are pretty good. I usually have a good idea where a play is going to happen. I rely on my instincts and speed to the ball.”
Evans totaled 165 tackles last season and led FCS with an average of 7.67 solo tackles per game. He had 19 tackles against league champ Towson and 24 against Lehigh, 17 of which were solo. He finished with double-figure tackles in 10 of UNH’s 12 games last season.
“He’s fun to watch,” Wilder said. “I really enjoy watching his video. He just never stops. That kid is relentless. That’s the type of player – I said this to our guys in the team meeting (Sunday) night – I said that’s the way you want to play the game, the way this guy plays. He’s non-stop to the football. Every play, when the play ends, he’s somewhere around the ball. Whether he’s making the tackle or he’s getting there a little bit late when the play ends.”
Statistically, Evans isn’t off to the kind of start this season that he had a year ago. He has 27 total stops, tied for fourth in the CAA, and had nine in the Wildcats’ loss at Minnesota. Though his numbers aren’t stratospheric, he is playing exceptionally and must be accounted for on every play.
“I’m blessed,” McDonnell said. “I’m very fortunate to be able to coach a kid like him.”
McDonnell will also tell you he had no idea that he had a Buchanan Award winner and All-American when Evans arrived. He saw qualities such as pursuit and productivity in Evans’ high school video, but said he left it up to former defensive coordinator Sean McGowan to decide whether Evans was worth a scholarship offer. McGowan thought he was.
Evans was a three-sport standout in high school and arrived at UNH as an undersized, 6-foot, 207-pound linebacker candidate. He redshirted as a freshman, gradually put on weight and got accustomed to the college game.
McDonnell said that Evans made major improvements between his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. He recalled a play against James Madison as a sophomore, where Evans blitzed and got caught in the backfield as the Dukes converted a screen pass. Evans wheeled, caught the running back 20 yards downfield and punched the ball out for a fumble.
“When you watch a play like that, you see the kid gets it,” McDonnell said.
Though Evans isn’t physically imposing, he is faster than you think and he has a knack for slipping blocks. His instincts allow him to play quicker and more efficiently than maybe his physical gifts would suggest.
“I’ve improved every year and I’m a hard worker,” Evans said. “I think I take things like people not expecting certain things out of me because I’m a little bit smaller, I use it and play with a chip on my shoulder and try to be the best player I can be.”
“Very cool, very humbling,” Evans said. “It’s awesome to be mentioned with those players. It’s an honor to have your name alongside those guys. Hopefully, I can be as good a player as they are.”
Evans has a chance to be only the second two-time winner of the award. Coakley, the former Appalachian State star and longtime pro with the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams, won the first two Buchanan Awards.
When asked if he thinks about repeating, Evans replied, “In the back of my mind, I guess. But the team definitely comes first. We want to win the CAA, win the national championship. But that’s kind of a back-burner goal, personally. I put the team first and want to improve the defense from last year.”
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