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All eyes on Evans after breakout UNH campaign
Matt Evans isn’t big on preseason hype. He lets someone else handle that.
“People always ask me if I’m worried about it or if it puts more pressure on me,” Evans said. “It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life, playing football. It comes natural to me. I don’t really worry about it. My mom cares about those accolades. It makes her happy.”
It should. Her son had a breakout performance last year for the University of New Hampshire football team, and because of it the junior linebacker is on just about everyone’s watch list for 2011.
Few saw it coming, especially after he had only 13 tackles in 12 games the previous year.
“I can’t tell you that I had a crystal ball,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell, “but he showed glimpses of getting to the football and being a linebacker who could run and play. He did it in camp and he did it in spring ball, but the consistency that he did it game-in and game-out is what impressed us.”
That impression extended well beyond the Durham town line and the Colonial Athletic Association.
A preseason All-American, Evans ranked second nationally in total tackles last year with 156 and finished fourth in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
That number was second highest at UNH since the school began keeping the statistic 1981.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said defensive end and senior co-captain Brian McNally. “You saw how our defense improved last year with him as a starter. There’s so many great things about Matt. He’s dynamic. He’s fast. He does everything well. He has great football instincts. He’s just a football player.”
A player with a high football IQ who doesn’t need a GPS to locate the ball.
“He has great natural instincts,” McDonnell said. “He has a great nose for the football and understands things pretty well.”
The 6-foot, 233-pounder from Hanover, Mass., led the Wildcats with 79 solo tackles last year and was second in sacks with four.
He also had 10.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, a team-high three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Evans scored two touchdowns, one on a fumble return at James Madison and the other on a pick-six against Towson.
“Matt’s a fast kid,” McDonnell said. “He’s athletic. He’s very strong pound for pound.
“It’s something we saw in high school,” he added. “It’s something we saw at the (Boston College) camp. You watch him and he had a feel for how to knock down a ball and a feel for getting in the passing lanes.”
He showed some of those skills last year against Massachusetts with 13 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception in a 39-13 win at Gillette Stadium. He took home the Bill Knight Trophy as the game’s most valuable player.
“I knew he was going to be an impact player for us,” McNally said, “but what he did last year I think he showed he’s one of the best linebackers in the nation, if not the best.”
When asked what he could do for an encore, Evans said, “To be honest, I don’t really think about that. It’s more about the team. All that other stuff doesn’t really matter to me.”
Evans led UNH in tackles in nine of 13 games last season.
“I just want him to play within himself and not to think he’s got to repeat,” McDonnell said. “Do what he’s capable of doing. Everybody saw what he did last year and how well he played when he relaxes and plays.”
Unfortunately, Evans has had minimal contact in camp lately because of a bruised shoulder. Training camp officially ends today with the annual Blue/White scrimmage (1 p.m.) at Cowell Stadium.
The Wildcats open their season a week from Thursday at Toledo.
The front seven, led by Evans and McNally, will be counted on to make plays, especially with an unsettled secondary following the loss of two four-year starters and several other veterans.
“I think it’s important for them to continue to lead by example in how hard they play,” McDonnell said. “Both of them do a great job with that.”
Evans will likely be paired at linebacker with junior Alan Buzbee, who was third on team in tackles last year with 86, including eight for a loss.
Buzbee became a starter early in 2010 when senior captain Devon Jackson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.
Although he’s only been a starter for one year, the soft-spoken Evans plans to give the younger players the benefit of his experience.
“Last year I was young to the defense,"he said. “This year is a 180 (degree) reversal. I’ve got to take a bigger role in leadership and bring players along that are trying to get accustomed to the defense.”
By AL PIKE, Foster’s Daily Democrat