BY GREGG ELLIS
STARKVILLE – On the field, Willie Evans fervently sets out to corral quarterbacks and bring them down as if they were roped cows.
Off the field, that zeal shifts to freshmen teammates, with the same goal to embarrass.
Evans, a 6-foot-2, 259-pound senior defensive end at Mississippi State, is a self-proclaimed prankster. And if he can get an unsuspecting newcomer to fall for one of his tricks, the excitement level nearly equates to that of a sack.
“I like to have fun,” said a smiling Evans, who has developed into one of the Bulldogs' top defensive players. “I like picking on the young guys. It was done to me all the time, so I guess you can say it's payback.”
One of his favorite pranks involves the hiding of playbooks.
If he sees one unsecured in a locker, he'll grab it and keep it for a couple of days.
But as the anxiety builds for the player involved, Evans will quietly return the goods.
“When I realize they are about to get into trouble, I'll give it back,” he said. “I like seeing them worry first.”
This year, he's been the cause for a lot of worry on the gridiron.
Evans has constantly wreaked havoc on opposing offenses, particularly this past week against Tulane when he recorded a career-high 10 tackles and three sacks en route to being named the SEC defensive lineman of the week.
“It was a nice game,” said Evans, who attributed most of his success against Tulane to the fact he was lined up against a freshman in Troy Kropog. “And we came out with a win.”
Trailing 21-14 with just seconds remaining, Tulane quarterback Lester Ricard unleashed a Hail Mary pass that came just inches short of landing into the hands of Green Wave receiver Brian King.
Evans could only turn and watch as the play unfolded. And it wasn't until the football finally hit the turf of Independence Bowl Stadium that he could breathe a sigh of relief.
“I made a mistake and let him get outside,” Evans said, referring to Ricard. “I was hoping he didn't catch the ball, because if he did, it was on me. But it turned out OK.”
All is “OK” these days for the Waynesboro native, who has been credited with 18 tackles, including five sacks.
But a couple of months ago, that wasn't the case.
In the spring, he was publicly chastised by coach Sylvester Croom, who felt Evans was more focused on his new fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, than football.
“He did not have a quality spring,” said Croom, whose 2-1 team is back in action at 8 p.m. Saturday at home against No. 7 Georgia. “I think he was distracted by some things off the field and had his attentions elsewhere. But he's come back this fall really focusing and trying to have a big year, and the other night was a great individual effort.
“He might say he's progressed in spite of me the past two years,” Croom added.
Evans admitted the coaching change was difficult at first when Croom replaced Jackie Sherrill. But he also said any differences he may have had with Croom are now in the past.
“I got my stuff together,” he said. “I've got no problems with him. He's a great guy. You've got to respect the coach.”
However, he didn't necessarily agree that he lost focus in the spring, but “If he said I didn't have a good spring, then I guess I didn't.”
All that matters now, as far as Croom and Evans are concerned, is that the two are on the same page. And that's made football fun again for Evans.
On the field, and off.