With good reason, the first two stops on the Texas A&M hype train are reserved for quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, and offensive tackle Jake Matthews, an All-America performer last season.
But receiver Mike Evans, after a record-shattering performance in last week’s 49-42 loss to top-ranked Alabama, is forcing himself into the national awards talk as well.
Evans (6-foot-5, 225 pounds), a sophomore who redshirted during the 2011 season, is eligible to enter the 2014 NFL Draft and has an NFL-ready skill set. Evans, who posted a school-record 279 receiving yards against the Crimson Tide, heads into Saturday’s matchup against SMU in Kyle Field as the NCAA leader in receiving yards (518) and yards per catch (25.9).
He ranks second nationally in receiving yards per game (172.7) and has three touchdown grabs in three games for No. 10 A&M (2-1).
In the estimation of A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, the Galveston Ball graduate — a more accomplished basketball player than football prospect in high school — finally is starting to flash his potential after emerging as a 1,000-yard receiver while battling a hamstring ailment last season.
“He was hurt last year for the majority of the season,” Sumlin said. “If you watch the video, he is dragging his leg (in some 2012 games). I don’t think anybody on our team was surprised by the Alabama game. He’s a great example. Without the ball, he plays just as hard. If he’s on the field, he’s playing lights out.”
Against Alabama, that translated to non-scoring catches of 32, 34, 34 and 35 yards in the first quarter as the Aggies built a 14-7 lead. Once the Crimson Tide seized momentum, as well as a 42-28 advantage, Manziel and Evans added two memorable fourth-quarter connections that created a white-knuckle finish.
A deep strike down the right sideline turned a third-and-nine situation into a 95-yard touchdown grab against tight coverage. Evans also snagged a 32-yarder on the Aggies’ final touchdown drive that closed the gap to 49-42 before Alabama recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal the win.
As much as the postgame spotlight swung to Manziel after the contest, the Aggies’ quarterback attempted to redirect it to Evans for his ability to consistently beat heralded cornerbacks on his routes and grab contested passes away from prying defenders’ hands.
“In my eyes, Mike Evans is the best receiver in college football,” Manziel said. “I see him every day, and every week I get to see how he works against defenders. And it’s just amazing. A big guys like that who can really run and gives it his all every game is a great player.”
Evans’ success places him on the list of frontrunners to win the 2013 Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. That marks a significant achievement for a receiver who earned only second-team, all-district honors as a high-school senior but led the basketball team in scoring (18.3 average). After opting for football over basketball as his college focus, Evans chose A&M over Tulane as his destination.
Asked about teammates calling him the nation’s best receiver, Evans said: “If they want to say that, then I love them for that. I practice my butt off and try my best every day.”
Based on play design, A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said Evans was the third option on last week’s 95-yard touchdown pass, the second-longest in school history.
“But in Johnny’s mind, Mike is always the first option,” McKinney said, smiling. “From a talent standpoint, the talent is there. He’s really starting to learn the position, understanding the little things of playing receiver. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Teammates and coaches expect continued improvement this season from a player that running back Ben Malena described as “one of the hardest-working guys on this team.” Whether that translates to winning the Biletnikoff Award depends on whether Evans (20 catches, 518 yards, 3 TDs this season) continues to capitalize on his connection with Manziel, his roommate at the A&M team hotel the night before games.
“We were on the scout team our freshman year, when we both redshirted,” Evans said, explaining the genesis of a prolific thrown-and-catch combo. “He’s one of my best friends. I guess that’s where our connection comes in.”
If it continues at its pace, both players could be in the mix for national individual honors in December.
Texas A&M vs. SMU
6 p.m. Saturday, Kyle Field
Radio: KRLD/105.3 FM, KTCK, 1310 AM
Mike Evans: By the numbers
|Yards per catch||25.9||15.9|
|Receiving yards per game||172.7||101.4|
Head to head
|Category||Texas A&M (2-1)||SMU (1-1)|
|Points per game||53||27|
|3rd down conv.||60.6%||43.2%|
|3rd down conv.||41%||48.3%|