For a moment, Marvin Sanders thought he was back in California watching film of his former high school team.
Sanders tuned in from across the country to watch Nico Evans make his first career start in Wyoming’s season opener at New Mexico State and figured it was coming. Midway through the third quarter, Sanders, now the defensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina, watched as Evans took the handoff, absorbed a hit from linebacker Javahn Ferguson, kept his balance and sped past safety Ron LaForce down the sideline for a 56-yard touchdown — the longest run of his career at the time.
“It was very similar,” said Sanders, who coached Wyoming’s running back during his prep days at Loyola High in Los Angeles. “He made somebody miss up in the hole and then just watching him grinding it out. There were a few runs — 8 yards, 10 yards — and they gave him the ball I think four or five times in a row at one point that I noticed.
“It might be a yard on this carry and two yards on the next carry, but he’s going to keep grinding and break one every now and then. He did that in high school. He’s doing the same exact thing he did in high school.”
By the time Evans was through poking and prodding the Aggies’ defense in Wyoming’s 29-7 win, he had 190 yards — another career-best at the time — and two scores with an average of 7.9 yards per carry that’s become the norm for the 5-foot-9, 211-pounder.
“After the first few carries, I really got my legs under me,” Evans said afterward. “So my confidence started building throughout the game.”
Evans has produced against everybody despite not having much help from a passing game that ranks 115th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. He’s leading the Mountain West in rushing yards per game, and it’s not close. If Evans hadn’t missed two games because of a rib injury — running backs have to play in 75 percent of their team’s games to qualify — his 153 yards per game would rank third nationally among individual rushers.
Not a bad start to the kind of primary role Evans has been waiting for since he signed with the Cowboys in 2014. His number of career starts will match the number of years he’s been on campus Saturday when Wyoming tries to snap its two-game losing streak at Fresno State, but Evans is seizing the opportunity, going from next man up to simply being the man.
“Nico’s the kind of guy that once he found his groove, I knew he would be very productive,” Sanders said. “Sometimes, especially at the college level, it takes a moment for a young man to find that groove, but I knew he had it in him.”
Evans has often found himself close to the top of the depth chart at running back but not quite there.
His playing time was usually reserved for a certain role within the offense rather than being the go-to-guy. The notion of being the next guy up should something happen to the starter became so prevalent that he included the phrase in his Twitter handle, @NextUp_Nico.
It doubled as motivation for Evans to keep pushing for the starting spot, something he didn’t attain at Loyola until his senior season. Much like he’s done at Wyoming, Evans got his chance to be Sanders’ featured back in the fall of 2013 and literally ran with it, rushing for 1,686 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final season with the Cubs.
“We had a couple pretty good running backs, so he was sharing time,” Sanders said. “But I knew when we needed to get a yard or two, we relied on Nico. He was just a workhorse for us and somebody you trusted to do things the right way.”
Evans’ only other scholarship offer came across the country from Ivy League member Penn, so he chose the closer option. But Evans found himself sitting behind another talented running back at Wyoming — one that’s turned out to be the best in program history.
Evans redshirted in 2014 before biding his time behind Brian Hill, a fifth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 who’s now on the team’s active roster. The school’s all-time leading rusher, Hill set Wyoming’s single-season rushing record with 1,631 yards in 2015 before topping it with 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns (also a single-season school record) in his final season with the Cowboys.
“Brian had a ton of success, so if it’s working, you’ve just got to keep working it,” Evans said. “Brian had his turn, and then last year, to be honest, our running game just wasn’t good.”
Evans brought that up because it was his biggest source of motivation heading into this season, and understandably so. Wyoming had future first-round pick Josh Allen at quarterback and a defense that led the MW in sacks and takeaways. But the Cowboys lost out on a chance at a share of the Mountain Division championship with back-to-back losses to end the regular season in part because of a running game that struggled mightily to find any continuity with Hill no longer around.
Trey Woods, then a true freshman, led the Cowboys with 463 rushing yards while Kellen Overstreet led the team in rushing the final three games. Meanwhile, Evans, primarily a third-down back last season, got just 11 carries for 19 yards, matching the fewest of his career. He was used more as a receiver out of the backfield — 10 receptions for 70 yards and a score — in an offense that barely cracked 100 yards a game on the ground, finishing 117th in the FBS in rushing.
“There was a lot of different backs going in and out,” Evans said. “It was frustrating, but it definitely kind of made me work harder. It made me work harder in the offseason and the spring.”
Evans finished the spring as one of the few healthy options in a running back room that’s since been thinned out. Mike Green II and Milo Hall both transferred before the season while Woods, who’s since left the team, was moved to defensive end.
Xazavian Valladay and Jevon Bigelow joined the mix as freshmen, but Evans put in the work to separate himself from the competition. He trimmed down and added lean muscle heading into preseason camp, which added more speed and agility to his vision and shifty feet.
“All along, the strength and conditioning coaches had been telling me his gains in the weight room were really outstanding and his measurables were outstanding,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said after Evans’ performance against NMSU. “During camp, he looked different.”
That’s when Bohl knew Evans was the Cowboys’ best option in the backfield. A few weeks before that coming-out party, he named Evans the starting running back, finalizing an ascent to the top of the depth chart that’s been years in the making.
“In high school, I wasn’t the guy until my senior year, so I had to fight and tell myself, ‘I’m next up. I’m going to be that guy,’” Evans said after being named the starter. “So when it’s finally my turn, boom, I go out and I show the world what I can do.’”
Evans was on his way to another 100-yard game in Wyoming’s home opener when he thought his chances to keep doing that might be over.
At the end of his 18th and final carry against Washington State on Sept. 1 — one that put him at 89 yards early in the second half — Evans was tackled with the weight of a Cougars defender directly on top of him. The force of the hit shoved the ball into Evans’ chest once he fell to the turf.
“Something didn’t feel right,” Evans recalled, so he made his way to the sideline so trainers could take a look. They felt some rigidness and assumed he’d broken some ribs, an unofficial diagnosis Evans could hardly believe.
“I thought they were joking with me. I didn’t think they were serious,” Evans said. “I was kind of in disbelief because I didn’t want to be hurt and I didn’t feel hurt at the time, but then they squeezed on my ribs and I kind of screamed.”
Turns out the injury wasn’t that bad. An X-ray didn’t show any breaks, meaning Evans’ only season at the top of Wyoming’s depth chart wasn’t over.
He missed a couple games as he waited for the bruising and soreness to subside, which was hard enough. The Cowboys went on to lose to Washington State 41-19, were blown out at Missouri 40-13 and needed a last-minute touchdown drive to avoid a loss to Football Championship Subdivision member Wofford in a 17-14 win on Sept. 15.
Without Evans, the Cowboys averaged less than 76 yards a game on the ground.
“It was extremely frustrating,” Evans said. “I’ve been kind of waiting for this opportunity my whole time here, and when I finally get it, I take advantage of it, but it’s a little short-lived.”
Evans used a bye week to get some extra rest before returning against Boise State on Sept. 29. He’s looked a lot like his old self since.
Evans got 12 carries and turned them into 141 yards against a Boise State defense that’s only allowing 131 yards a game on the ground. He followed that up with a career-high 192 yards last week against Hawaii on 24 carries and has accounted for 63 percent of Wyoming’s total yards the last two weeks.
Those performances included more of those long gainers he’s capable of popping as games wear on. Evans opened the second half against Boise with a career-long 75-yard touchdown run. Against Hawaii four of his carries went for at least 12 yards, including a 63-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter that got the Cowboys in position for a field goal that gave them their final lead in a 17-13 loss.
“Once he gets in his rhythm now, he can really go,” Sanders said.
Worth the wait
Evans is doing it all as part of a breed in college football that’s becoming extinct — a fifth-year senior who’s waited it out at the same school for his shot.
Transferring is the far more common practice for players after a year or two if they’re not seeing the field. Evans said he experimented with jet sweeps at receiver and even lined up in the slot at times during his redshirt freshman season as he contemplated making a position change in order to get more playing time, but he never mentioned the thought of transferring.
That doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him him well.
“There’s nothing in him that’s ever going to say, ‘Quit,’” Sanders said. “He’s been raised that way. And knowing how hard this young man worked, I think his whole goal is, ‘I know I have the ability to play here. I’m going to keep working hard and I know I’m going to get my chance.’ That’s just believing in his ability. I believe that’s who he is.”
It’s been worth the wait for Evans, who in four games has more than doubled the number of career carries he had coming into the season. He’s averaging 7.8 yards on those carries, tops among starting running backs in the MW.
He’ll likely get plenty more against Fresno State, though how much he’ll be able to produce against the stingiest run defense Wyoming has seen to this point remains to be seen. But there hasn’t been much that’s been able to slow Evans down now that he’s finally arrived.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Evans said. “We’re here now.”