High School Sports

Stone standout to NFL hopeful: Justin Evans reflects on his football odyssey

Growing up in Stone County, Justin Evans never kept up with the nearby Senior Bowl. He was a “baseball guy” and never paid much attention to Mobile’s prestigious showcase of future NFL stars.

A lot has changed since he graduated from Stone High in 2013.

Evans has spent the past week running around Ladd-Peebles Stadium and schmoozing with the who’s who of the NFL as part of perhaps his biggest job interview to date. Evans considers this a blessing, having been invited to the Senior Bowl after a standout college career — first at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and later at Texas A&M. Evans was all smiles after Wednesday’s South team practice, but was all business between whistles.

“It has been OK. We’re not perfect so we’re going to make mistakes. They want to see how hard we practice,” said Evans, who was a dual-sport standout before focusing on football at MGCCC. “We might mess up, but they want to see how hard we get back at it. There’s a lot of athletes out here. It’s fun. We’re all competing against each other, trying to get to the same spot. It’s just all fun.”

It took a little while to get used to practice, Evans said. The North and South squads featured some of college football’s elite draft prospects from coast to coast. Many college teammates are on the same squad, going head to head in drills. They’re easily distinguishable by their college helmets.

Several times during practice, Evans had Aggies teammate Josh Reynolds squared for a big hit only to ease up and let him pass.

It’s a balance because the Cleveland Browns coaches, which are running the South squad, and the numerous scouts in attendance, want to see authentic Evans; the one who made opposing players cringe when they saw him rushing down field from his safety spot.

“It’s different,” Evans said. “Playing against Josh and him being at receiver, now we’re really competing against each other. Rather than giving each other a look, now we really have to go 100 percent, 100 percent. It’s different but we have to do it.

“I’m just trying to showcase all my abilities while I’m here so when I leave; I’m trying to prove I’m the best safety here. That would be a successful week.”

Rankings & projections

Evans is ranked among the best safeties in his draft class. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke has the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Evans rated as the fifth-best safety. CBS Sports has Evans as the fourth-best strong safety and 94th overall prospect — a potential third-round pick. WalterFootball.com has Evans as the fourth-best safety and a first-round or second-round pick.

While projections may vary, it seems Evans is destined to hear his name called early during the NFL Draft on April 27. Still, he tries to block out most of the draft chatter.

“I think about it, but I don’t think about what round or anything like that,” Evans said. “I would like to go first round but whatever happens, happens. I’d be blessed first, second, third, fourth, whatever. I’d be blessed just to get drafted, so I try not to focus on that too much.”

There’s a speed dating element to Senior Bowl week. When the players aren’t practicing, they’re meeting with prospective employers.

Evans said he had talked to 15 to 20 teams already by Wednesday, with more interviews coming.

Did any of the conversations stand out? Does he see any possible fits?

“Hopefully all of them,” he said. “... (The interviews) have been fine. They all want to get to know who you are. They’re spending a lot of money. They all want to see who they’re potentially drafting.

“There’s a lot of them and it could get tiresome, but you just have to do it.”

Looking back

With about three months until the draft, Evans has caught himself reflecting quite a bit on how far he has come. When he enrolled at Gulf Coast, he still felt like baseball might be his future — as far as athletics were concerned. Then he finished his freshman year. The Bulldogs were the only school to show interest in Evans out of high school. That changed substantially in nearby Perkinston.

“I just started getting offers and offers and offers,” Evans said.

He ultimately chose Texas A&M over interest from Georgia, Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas and others.

After racking up 86 tackles, 13 passes defended and six interceptions at MGCCC, Evans continued to produce in College Station, Texas, putting together an All-SEC career that included 165 tackles, 16 passes defended and five interceptions. The prolific production weekly on the national stage brought Evans plenty of notoriety and accolades, ultimately landing him a spot in Saturday’s Senior Bowl as well as an invite to the NFL Combine, which is March 3-6.

If a Stone High Tomcat asked Evans for advice while he’s home in Wiggins, what would he say?

“Once you focus on your goals, just go get it,” he said. “Don’t stop. Don’t ever let anybody tell you what you can’t do.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

SENIOR BOWL

When: Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

Where: Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile

TV: NFL Network

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