Mike Evans admits his stomach might tighten a bit when he steps onto the field today at NRG Stadium in Houston, the way it did when the switch was thrown and the lights came on Friday nights at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas. • Of course, where Evans grew up is not like the dusty oil towns in the middle of the west Texas plains that dot the map. Galveston is on an island bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, 45 miles southeast of Houston. What's more, he only played basketball until being convinced to give the other sport a try as a senior in high school. But Evans has always known football is as big as the state itself. • "It will be good," said Evans, who played at Texas A&M and had to fill a request of more than 80 tickets for this game. "We're going back close to my hometown. It's kind of like going home, so it will be fun. … I get to see the rest of my family and play in front of them, so that's like a dream come true."
The Bucs have only been able to imagine what a healthy Evans would do for their offense this season. He strained his hamstring in the second preseason game, missed the season opener and was on the equivalent of a pitch count last week in last Sunday's 26-19 win over the Saints.
Evans was targeted three times but had no catches. In fact, he hasn't connected yet in any game with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.
"Mike is as good as there is," coach Lovie Smith said. "He poses a lot of problems, especially against teams that pressure you. The corners a lot of times are by themselves out there. We have a favorable matchup most weeks with Mike one-on-one vs. whoever he's playing. So it has to help you. We were a better offense last week with Mike getting plays. With Mike getting even more plays this week, the offense should take another step."
Evans, 22, is the Bucs' best weapon, having finished third in 2014 rookie of the year voting behind Giants receiver Odell Beckham and Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He had the second-most receiving yards and fourth-most receptions among rookies in his debut season, finishing with 68 receptions for 1,051 yards and tying the club record with 12 touchdowns.
"Having a guy like him is having someone who can hit a home run on any play," Bucs receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker said. "There was a portion in the game last week where I was going to rest him and the other guys said, 'No, no, let him go.' It's different when he's in the game. New Orleans' defense had been matching (Brandon) Browner on people, but with Mike and Vincent (Jackson) in the game, it was hard for them to continue to keep that game plan and match. After a while, they just gave up.
"It does change the tempo of the game and how they play you. They'd rather be cautious, because (Evans) has a knockout shot."
The Texans are aware of the matchup problems they face with the 6-foot-5 duo of Jackson and Evans.
"A lot of times when you're playing man-to-man, the safety is not able to help unless you declare him to a particular receiver," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "Once you put him to one guy, if the quarterback can read it, he's not going to that guy. He goes to the other guy. I think that's one of the beauties they have in having two big, tall receivers that can go get the ball. It does pose matchup problems from a size standpoint."
Evans' increased role will be even more important with the loss of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns before sustaining a shoulder injury that will knock him out four to six weeks.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said it won't be hard to feature Evans in the offense again.
"Just throw him the ball," Koetter said. "We missed him a couple of times. Obviously, we need to get Mike involved in what we are doing. We have to get the ball to him."
"I'll get my opportunities," Evans said. "We have a good game plan. I'll get my opportunities throughout the year and it's my job to make the play. (Have) a good week of practice, working on getting open, and hopefully it will be a good one."
After all, it's football. It's Texas, where players like Evans are used to having the hopes and dreams of entire towns heaped on their shoulder pads.