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Posted: 3:16:47 PM- When he first heard the plan to move him away from the position at which he earned all-conference honors last season, Utah's Casey Evans had a predictable reaction.
"There was hesitation," he acknowledged. "I didn't want to move."
Who could blame him?
The senior from Olympus High already had earned a scholarship and established himself as one of the best safeties in the Mountain West Conference, after joining the team as a walk-on three years ago. He has played in all but one game over the past three seasons, forging a reputation for making big plays at crucial moments and earning second-team all-league honors last season.
But the more he thought about it, the more Evans came to believe that moving to linebacker would not be as difficult as he feared - and that it would be best for the Utes as they attempt to win a third conference championship in four years.
"The safety is the quarterback of the defense and pretty much knows what everybody else has to do, anyway," he said. "So when I was learning linebacker, it was really easy and that's pretty much it. . . . You just have to be a team guy. The bottom line is our goal is to win a championship and if we have our best 11 guys on the field then that's going to be our best odds of winning a championship."
That's what the coaches thought, too.
Coach Kyle Whittingham knew he had to find a way to get blossoming junior safety Steve Tate on the field more, but that would be impossible if Evans and fellow senior Eric Weddle remained full-time starting safeties. So the coaches decided to shift Evans into the rover linebacker spot vacated by graduated senior Spencer Toone, at least when the Utes are in their basic 4-3 defensive alignment. Tate, then, will start at free safety.
Evans "has so much experience in the nickel packages down there in the box that it's just a natural carry-over to the 4-3," Whittingham said. "He's been playing in the box for three years now for us, so it's not nearly as big a transition as people may think."
The shift is probably the biggest change for a defense that returns seven other starters from the unit that ranked second in the league last year and smothered No. 24 Georgia Tech in a 38-10 victory in the Emerald Bowl to finish the season.
Coaches also believe it will make the Utes faster and more organized, because they won't have to shuttle so many players on and off the field when they switch from their 4-3 to their nickel pass-defense scheme. When that happens, Evans simply will fall back into his traditional safety role and help defend the pass.
"It makes us a faster defense with Casey at linebacker," Whittingham said.
Evans said the transition has gone smoothly, though he admits to sneaking into a few more of the safety meetings to have fun with his old buddies. And he's well aware that his new role could make him an even bigger star, considering the rover linebacker typically leads the team in tackles. Toone made 113 last season to lead the entire conference.
Of course, Toone was a couple of inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier than Evans. But neither Evans nor Whittingham worries about that size difference; both said 6-foot Evans can be effective at his current 200 pounds.
"It's a linebacker position," Whittingham said, "but in our scheme he's covered up by a couple of big defensive tackles and he's really a sideline-to-sideline player."
"My mentality has always been good, I think I've always been a guy who's been willing to throw it in there," he said. "At linebacker, it's just a mental game, you know? Just reading the line, reading the back in front of you. Putting yourself in a position to make the play. I think I'm big enough and strong enough to handle the job."