LINCOLN — Nebraska's Ciante Evans, the much-improved junior auditioning for a permanent hybrid role within the Huskers' defense, may be running out of time to make a convincing case to the coaching staff and keep his playing time from drastically decreasing.
Evans, the top nickel back, has rarely left the field during NU's first three games — and he's earned high praise from the coaches for his efforts. He'll likely get the majority of snaps Saturday as the Huskers match up against the pass-heavy offense of Idaho State.
But after that?
“Guess I'm just going to be on the bench, coming in cold,” Evans said with a smile. “I don't know. We're just going to have to see.”
Two years ago, this wouldn't have been an issue at Nebraska. Evans' nickel spot is Eric Hagg's old position — the linchpin role of the versatile peso package that NU once used to combat sideline-to-sideline, multi-receiver attacks. Back then, Hagg never left the field.
Nebraska's in a new conference, though, soon to again match up against several offenses that prefer to establish their ground games and regularly line up in formations with two running backs or two tight ends to help accomplish that goal. Wisconsin, on Sept. 29, will be the first such test.
It could mean a dramatically different role for Evans, who is leading the team with four pass breakups and recorded a career-high seven total tackles against Arkansas State on Saturday.
“We're going to find ways to get him on the field, one way or the other,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I don't think we're ever going to get in a situation where we see Ciante not playing in a game.”
It's unclear, however, if the Husker coaches will ditch their philosophical tendencies and substitute Evans into a lineup (as a fifth defensive back) even when an opposing offense has fewer than three receivers on the field.
They rarely did that last year. Papuchis indicated this week that the staff hasn't yet thought that far ahead.
The way Evans has improved at nickel, though, he might be making a case to contribute there, no matter the size of the opponent's skill players.
“If they ask me to do a job, then I'm going to do that,” said Evans, who is 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. “I'm not going to back down. I don't care if it's linebacker, safety, anything. It's whatever they want.”
Evans played cornerback as a true freshman and a little bit last season before focusing solely on the complex nickel spot, which blends together responsibilities of a defensive back and a linebacker.
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Evans spent the offseason increasing his knowledge of the scheme, what has helped him play confidently and under control, secondary coach Terry Joseph said. Several times during fall camp, Evans watched practice film with coach Bo Pelini, who typically had technique-related talking points.
In pass coverage, Evans is rarely in a situation where he doesn't have a safety providing help downfield, which allows him to position his body and shade receivers away from soft spots within the defense. Evans didn't understand that last season, but it's “helped him out a ton (this year),” Joseph said.
Evans could stand to be a bit more assertive in the run game, Joseph said. Less hesitation. More play-making. But Evans did have several open field stops at UCLA and against the Red Wolves last weekend — including a momentum-boosting tackle on an Arkansas State bubble screen, stopping it for no gain in a key third-quarter moment.
“That's a player who understands what's going on, understands what he needs to do,” Joseph said. “He's putting himself in position to make plays. That's why he can go out and play that nickel position and be a steady force for us.”
Steady enough to be relied on against a downhill running team like Wisconsin? Or when Ohio State calls on its bigger sets? Or what about against Michigan State? Iowa?
Evans wouldn't mind getting a chance to prove himself. He plans to do his best this weekend to help bolster the coaches' confidence in him.
“I think I can play it,” Evans said. “It's up to (the coaches) at the end of the day. They're going to put the 11 best guys on the football field.”
Just don't judge Evans by his size, he says. Two years ago, Hagg was a 6-2, 210-pound talent who was rarely outmatched physically.
Evans doesn't have those measurables. But the idea of battling at the line of scrimmage against players who are stronger or bulkier doesn't intimidate him.
“I'm not scared of competition,” he said. “That's how we live around here.”
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