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Bucs rookie safety Justin Evans quickly takes advantage of chance to play

Bucs rookie safety Justin Evans, left, gets his first career interception, off Tom Brady, in his first career start.
Bucs rookie safety Justin Evans, left, gets his first career interception, off Tom Brady, in his first career start.
Published Oct. 12, 2017

TAMPA — Two weeks ago, rookie safety Justin Evans played a single defensive snap in the Bucs' loss at Minnesota, and it looked like the second-round draft pick might be limited to special-teams contributions for much of the year.

Two injuries have thrust him into a major role. He stepped in for much of the Bucs' win versus the Giants on Oct. 1, and then he played every snap in last week's loss to the Patriots, picking up his first career interception, off Tom Brady, no less.

"This guy is a freakish athlete, and that is why he was drafted where he was," coach Dirk Koetter said of the former Texas A&M standout. "This is no denying his talent, and it showed up big in the game."

Evans, 22, missed the Bucs' workouts in summer with a knee injury, and that set him back in training camp, where he worked only as a backup to Chris Conte and Keith Tandy. When the Bucs added Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward just before the season started, it looked like it would be even harder for Evans to get onto the field.

But hip injuries to Ward and Tandy had him playing 45 snaps against the Giants, with three tackles, and he made his first start against the Patriots, piling up nine tackles, two passes defensed and an impressive first interception.

"It doesn't surprise me," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said of Evans' success. "He's a very good football player, and he just needs reps, needs to see it. I think he's going to be a guy that's going to help us, in the short term and the long term. He's getting comfortable back there, and no disrespect to any of the other guys, but he's probably the most athletic safety that we have."

Until last week, Evans' athleticism was best known for his 41.5-inch vertical leap at the draft combine and running the 40 in 4.57 seconds at his pro day. A two-sport high school star in Mississippi, he stole 22 bases as a senior and had colleges interested in him as a pitcher with a 90-mph fastball. Entering the NFL draft, the statistics website Pro Football Focus gave as his pro comparable Seahawks star Earl Thomas.

Asked if his solid play against two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Eli Manning and Brady helped his confidence, Evans said that has never been a problem.

"It probably upped it a little bit, but I already had that confidence going in because that's just how my confidence meter is," he said. "That's just how I am."

Evans came to the Bucs with concerns about his tackling, but Smith, calling it a "perceived weakness," said much of that was Evans being overaggressive in college, something he has already improved upon.

"He was a very aggressive player. In open space, you've got to make sure you have someone that you're working with and you're not playing it like you're the only guy on the field," Smith said. "I think he's got a much better understanding of that. I've been very pleased.

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"For him to come in and have nine tackles against the defending Super Bowl champs and probably the greatest quarterback of all time and get an interception — the guy has to be excited about his first start in the NFL."

Ward and Tandy could be back healthy Sunday against the Cardinals, but Evans is staking a claim to regular playing time, if not a starting role. The Bucs have six of their next eight games on the road, and Evans already knows enough to recognize how important it is to start that run with a win Sunday.

"It's a big game for us because we're 2-2. We've got to start stacking wins," he said. "We can't be win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. If you do, you're going to be 8-8, back home (for) the playoffs. We have to find a way to keep stacking wins."

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.