GAINESVILLE — When Florida safety Josh Evans took the field against Missouri last weekend, it was with a highly competitive spirit and a heavy heart.
The senior was torn between the need to give everything he had to the Gators and his concern for family and friends struggling to recover in the aftermath of the devastation from Hurricane Sandy.
"It was very scary," said Evans, a native of Irvington, N.J. "I think that I kind of had a chip on my shoulder (last) weekend to go out there and play harder for my family, the struggle they're going through, and the lives we lost back in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut. It had me a little emotional to go out there and just play my heart out. It's been tough."
Evans' family home sustained considerable damage from the storm, but his family and friends came out safe, he said.
For Evans, playing through adversity is nothing new. Heading into today's game against Louisiana-Lafayette, he has appeared in 43 games in his career, with 20 starts. Although he played in all 13 games last season (eight starts), he battled injuries that hindered his play. But over the offseason and throughout this season, Evans said he has dedicated himself to more extensive video study and everything else possible to improve his game.
"I was just trying to change my game up," he said. "More film studying, more meeting with my coaches and doing what I can do to put me in the best fit for this team and my future goals."
The result has been evident. Evans is 18th in the SEC and leads the No. 7 Gators with 62 tackles this season, 30 solo. He has had five or more tackles in every game this season. And against Missouri last week, Evans had a career-high 12 tackles and an interception in the end zone with five seconds remaining to seal the win.
He is, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said, arguably the most improved player on a vastly improved defense.
"I think he certainly has to be in the conversation because of all that he's bringing," Quinn said. "Taking the ball away, tackling physical, he's been a good blitzer, he's come up with interceptions, he's had some sacks. So, all around, we've used him in a variety of ways, and he's answered the challenge every time."
Like several of Florida's upperclassmen, Evans has faced the challenge of playing for three defensive coordinators in his four years, something that has also made succeeding tough.
"It's real difficult, especially coming in from your freshman to your senior year trying to adapt to one thing, and then just that fast it can be totally different," Evans said.
"The one thing I can say about where I'm at right now, it has helped a lot being consistent, learning the same thing."
Evans also said, at 21, he has matured and is more dedicated, a change his teammates attest to.
"He's just a better overall football player," senior linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "He's a better safety. He's a better person. He's a better everything. He just worked to develop his craft."
Next week, Evans will play his final home game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. His senior class has been a part of the program when it faced tough times, and he is among those helping to lead its resurgence.
"It's going to be very emotional," he said. "You come in, and you never think these four years are going to go by so fast. But here it is before my eyes, it's my last couple of games here.
"Just the chemistry of this team is probably what's going to hurt the most (leaving). Not being able to be out there with your brothers, your friends. I think everything is going pretty good to where I'll leave with good memories."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected].