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Chris Evans: An Old Coach Finding His Way In The NFL 

Chris Evans' first NFL touchdown.
Chris Evans' first NFL touchdown.

After last Sunday's breakout romp in Detroit, Bengals rookie running back Chris Evans went back to the drawing board for this Sunday's AFC North showcase game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore like the old special teams coach he is.

"I kind of mis-fit a couple of things," Evans is saying this week after Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons got through with what you would think would have been an immaculate tape of three franchise-tying tackles in one game on the kick teams.

"A lot of coaching points he gives me are things we never talked about," Evans says. "I take pride in not getting coached up on the same thing twice because that means I'm not taking into account what he's saying."

Antaiwn Mack, the head coach who hired Evans to coach his special teams two years ago and help revive the Huron High School program, didn't get a chance to catch his old assistant's breakdown of the Lions. He's only about a half-an-hour away in Ann Arbor, but Mack's Sundays, and every other day for that matter, are reserved for crafting game plans in a breakout season of his own where the River Rats have seven wins for the first time in two decades.

But Mack eventually got the word. The clicks sent him to Evans' first NFL touchdown catch, a 24-yard grab that began the day's scoring and another afternoon scorcher for quarterback Joe Burrow. If he kept clicking, he would have found out about Evans' massive blitz pickup that made possible the longest play of the game.

But the eventual text from Evans probably didn't even mention those three teams tackles. Although they couldn't have surprised Mack.

"One thing about Chris Evans," Mack is saying this week between the Xs and Os. "He likes challenges. He didn't want to coach an offensive position. He wanted to coach special teams and defense because he wanted to learn different phases of the game. He loves to learn. He loves to be challenged. That's the great thing about his character."

Mack helped Evans get through the biggest challenge of his life.

They first met early in Evans' career at Michigan. Evans, who won regional track titles for Indianapolis' Ben Davis High School's powerhouses in the 110 hurdles, the long jump and the 400 relay, trained with the Huron track coach. When Evans mentioned to Mack he'd love to work with his team if something ever came up, they both remembered.

Then when Evans got suspended for the year of 2019 for plagiarism, he vowed to tell kids his story in every forum he could and reached out to Mack. Mack, then in his first season heading up a program with a 39-game losing streak, had a special teams and safeties coach with a story to tell.

Evans had never played special teams at Michigan. But he had the paperwork and he installed Jim Harbaugh's scheme.

"It's just like a class. He studied special teams. He gathered the material so he could explain it to the kids," Mack says of his kicking game. "We were sound. Well prepared. Communicated well."

Evans helped Huron break the losing streak. Huron helped Evans break his. After last Sunday's game, Evans was still helping the kids of Michigan. Even before Mack hired Evans, he knew all about him through CE Stars, Evans' organization of youth flag football teams he started as a teenager in Indy so he could coach his younger brother.

Some of Mack's players had been in the group that Evans started in Ann Arbor when he went to college. Now the thing has morphed from Indy and Michigan to Louisville and Lafayette, Ind., as Evans gets the time and money to add on. On Sunday, about seven kids from the Detroit eight-year-old team watched from a suite one of the parents purchased to watch CE Stars himself.

After the game they met him on the field and now Evans is showing you pictures of the kids trying on his helmet. The only things you can see are their cavernous smiles.

"He's a testament," Mack says. "If you work you can make your dreams possible. I'm extremely proud of him."

Now Evans is looking at more pictures.

They are of the Ravens and who knows what role he'll play against them?

He played his most offensive snaps and special teams plays in Detroit because No. 2 running back Samaje Perine was on the COVID list.

So whether they'll let Evans try to pick up the blitz against the Ravens' dizzying buffet of pressure looks like he did so well on wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase's 53-yard catch last week remains to be seen. The Ravens are a much different animal. The security blankets are Perine with his three career games against Baltimore and No. 1 Joe Mixon's seven career games against Wink Martindale's rushing roulette.

But even with Perine in there, Evans had been getting his chances to catch balls out of the backfield and that figures to keep happening after Sunday's touchdown.

Special teams? As Simmons says, the reliable Perine "isn't going anywhere." Evans filled in on punt and kick return. If Perine is back, he'll probably go back to just punt return and kickoff.

"He was productive," Simmons says. "He was a part of three tackles. He's not anywhere near being a finished product. He never played a snap of it in college. He's learning."

Evans appreciates the tough coaching from Simmons and his assistant Colt Anderson. The bar is high. When Simmons thinks of running backs in his program, he's thinking of Cedric Peerman, a Pro Bowler, and Rex Burkhead, who could have been.

"I've heard a lot of stories from guys about bad coaches that just get on you and yell," Evans says of special teams. "These guys are good coaches. They're not going to yell. They'll get somebody else to do it."

Simmons has become one of the most respected minds in the NFL kicking game during this century with an old school meticulousness. He makes the Odd Couple's Felix Unger look like an unmade bed.

This is how Simmons saw Evans' Sunday:

"He said when I did make one of my tackles, I should have gone inside the blocker," Evans says. "On the next tackle, I needed to keep my contain. The next tackle I got on punt, I needed to set more inside when I block. Even if you're 100 percent, he'll find something. I like that. It pushes you to do better knowing that nothing is perfect."

He also likes it that Simmons and Anderson don't yell. That's how he coached it.

"This is our job. We can take the heat," Evans says. "Some of these kids, they take some heat and they don't want to play anymore."

But Evans is quite interested in playing more. Anywhere.

"I'm a sixth-round pick," says Evans, sounding like an old kicking game coach that he is. "I've got to contribute on special teams."