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Mike Evans begins to step up for Bucs

Bucs receiver Mike Evans, avoiding a tackle by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, has 25 catches for 336 yards this season.
Bucs receiver Mike Evans, avoiding a tackle by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, has 25 catches for 336 yards this season.
Published Nov. 2, 2014

TAMPA — As Mike Evans stormed off the field following the shockingly sudden 19-13 loss to Minnesota in overtime last Sunday, Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn finally caught up to the Bucs rookie but couldn't make him break stride.

"Hey man," said Munnerlyn, a sixth-year pro. "What are you doing out there? Trying to break my back?"

Bucs receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker said he loved Evans' response. "He didn't have time for it because he was angry that we lost," Hayes-Stoker said. "He said, 'No, I'm just trying to win.' "

Evans, who had four catches for a career-high 78 yards, including a 40-yarder, had leveled Munnerlyn and another Vikings defensive back on running plays.

Ultimately, Evans will make a name in the NFL with his flypaper hands, reliable route running and yards after the catch. Until then, he plans to bully his way to the top.

Giving Munnerlyn a stiff-arm — on and off the field — will help put some fear into other NFL defensive backs.

"Last week, he was on the left-hand side of the formation and he just moved the defensive back off the ball and boom!" Hayes-Stocker said. "Until you play defensive back and you're across from somebody like that, it changes the way you're going to play them. If you're aggressive and you don't dance but you come off attacking all the time, it'll change them and then it's that fear factor. Other guys talk about it and they hear about it and they see it on tape. Now they're adjusting their game."

In college Evans, at 6 feet 5, 231 pounds, was on the receiving end of many prayers that were answered for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

"It seemed surreal," Evans said of his days in College Station with Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012. "He's one of the most famous college athletes of all time looking back on it. It was normal. He was a normal guy. He didn't make anything of it. Just the media made a lot of things of it, just hyping him up and wondering what he's doing all the time. It was fun, to say the least."

Manziel might have been one of the most polarizing and scrutinized players to enter the draft. But the more teams watched Manziel, the more they saw Evans as a better player. The Bucs selected him seventh overall, the second receiver picked.

But after the Aggies' pro day, Evans packed on pounds on the rubber chicken circuit, visiting NFL teams and eating steak at five-star restaurants.

He came into offseason workouts overweight, pulled a hamstring and had trouble rounding into shape in training camp. In Week 2, Evans took a big hit in his back from Rams safety T.J. McDonald following a 32-yard reception to the St. Louis 32. Evans couldn't get to his feet, and with the Bucs out of timeouts, a 10-second runoff ended the game with Tampa Bay losing 19-17.

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Two weeks later, Evans pulled up on a deep ball that was intercepted; he pulled a groin muscle and missed a game.

"For him to be the dominant guy we know he can be, he's got to take that step and ownership of, 'Hey, I'm going to invest in myself and I'm going to make myself a machine,' " Hayes-Stoker said. "That's what he's got to do to get to where that elite status is.

"…Otherwise, it's just flashes. It's a flash here and a flash there, but it's not consistent. That's the challenge for him."

During the bye week, Evans vowed to be more consistent and more physical.

"Especially in the run game. I hadn't had too many knockdowns," he said. "In college I was able to always try to truck some guys and get knockdowns. I got a couple knockdowns in this game and I always try to get at least two per game. It puts fear in the DB and opens me up for the passing game."

Evans is on pace for about 50 catches and 850 yards. A 1,000-yard rookie season is not unreachable. Ultimately, the Bucs would like him to prove he can be a No. 1 receiver, perhaps next year when Vincent Jackson's cap hit is more than $12 million.

Bucs coach Lovie Smith loves that Evans talks about run blocking, as well as his effort trying to run down Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, whose fumble return for a TD in overtime ended the game.

"His arrow is definitely going up," Smith said.

Like Munnerlyn found out, trying to slow down Evans is already difficult.

"I tell the guys, that's the biggest sign of respect," Hayes-Stoker said. "When other players come up to you after the game and tell you, you did well."

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620.

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