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August 28, 2010

Evans returns as Va. Tech's forgotten man

Virginia Tech tailback Darren Evans walked into his position coach's office in February, but not about a football-related matter.

Evans could've visited Billy Hite to update him about his surgically repaired left knee, which kept him on the sideline for the 2009 season. Evans also could've visited to ask Hite where he would fit in a backfield that includes 1,600-yard rusher Ryan Williams and veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Instead, the visit was about a personal matter.

"He said, 'I want you to be the first to know that Taneesha and I got married,' " Hite said.

Virginia Tech, which opens the season Labor Day night against Boise State in one of the season's biggest non-conference games, is the preseason favorite to win the ACC thanks to players such as Williams and Taylor. But despite their abilities, Evans might be the most impressive individual. At least he is to Hite.

Offseasons come and go. Players mature and change between the final snap of one season and the first snap of the next. But few have had as an eventful gap between games as Evans did since he last played, in the 2009 Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati.

Evans rushed for a then-ACC freshman record 1,265 yards in 2008, but he didn't have a chance to build on his inaugural season. Three weeks before the '09 season opener, Evans suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during a non-contact drill during practice.

But while rehab surely was on Evans' mind over the past year, he had bigger worries than how coaches would divvy up carries with him and Williams. Evans had Taneesha and a 3-year-old son, James, at home.

While some of his teammates were enjoying the summer, Evans spent the offseason washing dishes at a Blacksburg, Va., pizza restaurant.

When spring practice started, Evans had to get acclimated to his repaired knee and overcome the anxiety that such an injury would happen again. He also had to worry about showing up for work at the pizza parlor.

"I understand why he wasn't in good shape -- he wasn't sitting around eating potato chips all day," Hite said. "He was making money for family."

Juggling school, football, work and family was a tough job, but Evans enjoys the opportunity to juggle those things. He was a father before he arrived on campus; his son was born in November 2006, but Taneesha and James remained in Indianapolis, where Evans starred at Warren Central High.

"If I worry about Ryan and how many carries he's getting or what he's doing in the offseason, that won't make a better player out of me."
- Darren Evans, on competing for carries with teammate Ryan Williams this season.
His wife-to-be and son didn't move to Blacksburg until 2008, when Evans was starring as a redshirt freshman for the Hokies. Living apart, Evans said, was a bigger burden than anything he handled this summer.

"I wouldn't say it's stressful," Evans said. "Family life and life at home isn't as hard as people would presume because I have a great relationship with Taneesha and James is the best son anyone could ask for."

Taneesha and James became part of Evans' support group after his knee injury. Hite, Hokies coach Frank Beamer and his teammates helped. And Evans also had a high school friend and former teammate going through the same ordeal.

Iowa running back Jewel Hampton, who was a year behind Evans at Warren Central, also suffered a knee injury last summer; he had surgery in September. Like Evans, Hampton was being counted upon to build on a successful freshman season.

The two never saw each other during their rehab, but they spoke and texted often.

"He's one of my best friends; we're like brothers," Evans said. "We talked a lot about that and the differences in rehab and what I'm doing here and what he's doing there.

"The eagerness to get on the field is basically the top of our conversations now."

Evans had one sleepless night -- the day he learned he needed surgery -- but progressed rapidly through his rehab. While he started spring drills as the fourth-string tailback, he quickly moved up the depth chart.

"Physically, it [felt fine] right away," Evans said. "Mentally, it took a couple weeks.

"I had to get a few hits under my belt and force myself to trust it as much as I could. That's hard when you do have something like that -- you're worried about not hurting it again."

A healthy Evans gives Hite perhaps the best tailback duo he has had Virginia Tech -- and that covers 32 seasons. The best has been Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, who combined for 2,196 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2002.

Williams broke Evans' ACC freshman rushing record last season with 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns. Williams is a Heisman and Doak Walker contender, though Hite concedes Williams might have trouble winning awards if he splits carries.

Evans, though, should not be forgotten. He didn't open the 2008 season as the starter, but he had earned the job by the end of the season. He rushed for 746 yards in the final six games, including 114 in the ACC championship game and 153 in the Orange Bowl win.

Although they will compete for carries, Evans and Williams are friends who trade tips and advice on the sidelines. Evans said he's not consumed by thinking about how many touches each player will get.

"I can't worry about what anyone else is doing because if I do, I won't get any better," he said. "If I worry about Ryan and how many carries he's getting or what he's doing in the offseason, that won't make a better player out of me. I need to spend more time focusing on me."

If any player knows about tasks more important than carrying a football, it's Evans.

Hite knows his running backs will be the focal point of Tech's offense, but even if Evans doesn't play a major role this season, Hite won't be disappointed.

"Most kids that are 18-, 19-, 20-years old don't take care of responsibilities," Hite said. "If he didn't play another down, he'd be one of the best players I've ever had."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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