The chatter started as Erick Evans broke to the outside and scampered down the field, leaving defenders at the Darrell R. Dickey Football Practice Facility in his wake.
A few North Texas players jumped up and down, while others looked at each other. Fellow running back Antoinne Jimmerson just smiled.
Spring practice is a time when players whom no one expects to contribute emerge. It’s a time that helped Casey Fitzgerald go from being a walk-on to one of the most productive receivers in UNT history, a time that offered defensive end Brandon McCoy a chance to develop into an anchor for the Mean Green’s Heart of Dallas Bowl championship team.
More and more, it appears as if Evans could be the next in line.
“Erick Evans is absolutely making an impression,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “He has really opened some eyes. We knew he had speed, but he needed to develop as a total player. That is catching the ball, blocking and knowing exactly where to hit the hole on running plays.
“He is really doing a good job. He has good vision. He’s tough. He’s smart. For a guy who is a redshirt freshman, he is putting himself in position to help us in the fall.”
The former Seagoville running back spent a short time at the Air Force Academy’s prep school before following his brother Zed Evans to UNT, where he walked on.
Erick Evans looked back on his football journey this week and couldn’t help but be a little surprised at how far he has come to put himself in position to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“I worked hard, but I didn’t expect to be in the position I am now,” Evans said. “I want to prove that I can play with the first team. I am going to continue to work hard and give great effort.”
That effort helped Evans keep his college football dreams alive when he broke his right foot in both his sophomore and junior seasons of high school. Evans was named first-team All-District 11-4A his senior season and capitalized when he landed a spot on the Air Force prep school team.
“They stuck by me in high school even though I suffered injuries my sophomore and junior years,” Evans said. “It seemed like the best choice at the time.
“I wanted to go Division I, and Air Force was a Top 25 team at the time.”
Evans quickly realized he had made a mistake once he got to Colorado and tried to settle into a military lifestyle.
“The Air Force wasn’t my cup of tea,” Evans said. “I thought it was something I wanted to do, but it wasn’t the right fit.”
Evans received an opportunity at UNT largely because of his brother. Zed Evans began his career at Louisville before transferring to UNT, where he is competing for a starting job at safety.
Erick Evans essentially tagged along and spent last season as a redshirt while his brother played mostly on special teams.
Offensive coordinator Mike Canales said UNT stuck the younger Evans on the roster at the last minute.
“My brother told me there was a possibility he would come to North Texas,” Erick Evans said. “When he said he was coming on a visit, I thought about coming here. It made it an easy decision.”
McCarney and Canales are starting to think that the move could pay off in a significant way. UNT leading rusher Brandin Byrd graduated after the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and key running back Reggie Pegram is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last season.
Jimmerson returns after rushing for 446 yards last season and will have a key role again next year, when UNT plans to rely on a running back rotation that has become a staple of the McCarney era.
Erick Evans, who is 5-9 and 190 pounds, could end up being a vital part of that rotation.
“He brings so much speed that we have lacked,” Canales said. “He’s someone we haven’t had since I have been here. He’s that fast.”
Canales compared Evans to Lance Dunbar in terms of his ability to impact a game in a variety of ways and to Jeremy Brown in terms of his speed. Dunbar finished his career as UNT’s all-time leading rusher, while Brown was one of the fastest running backs UNT has featured over the last few seasons.
“I am a perfect fit with the style of offense,” Erick Evans said. “My speed and intelligence are my best assets. Everyone says I am just a speed back, but I am more than that.”
Canales and Evans’ teammates say he has fit in just as well off the field as on it.
“He’s a great kid who never complains or questions anything,” Canales said. “He was just waiting for an opportunity and has shown he wants this job.”
Evans’ teammates have noticed that determination.
“He’s been doing a great job,” UNT offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo said. “There are some guys who are out or are hurt. He is stepping up in a big way. He is out there competing and going for a spot. You can see it every time he touches the ball.”
Just like Fitzgerald and McCoy before him, Evans could be carving out a significant role with the Mean Green after starting as a walk-on.
Playing for UNT wasn’t what Evans had in mind when he left Seagoville for Colorado. Now he couldn’t imagine a better situation.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Evans said. “Coming to North Texas was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.