When defensive coordinator Willie Martinez look at his depth chart midway through an injury-filled 2008 season, he knew he needed another safety, and there weren’t a lot of options to choose from.
“Just the lack of experience we had at that time, we thought, who can do it?” Martinez said. “Well, Bryan can do it.”
Bryan Evans would never have complained about making a sacrifice for the good of the team, but the truth is, when Martinez asked him to move from corner to safety, he assumed his days as key player on Georgia’s defense were all but over.
He was more than halfway through his junior year when it happened. There was a whole new set of plays to learn, intricacies of a new position to master and a handful of younger players who already had more experience at safety. Evans looked like the low man on the totem poll.
“I really didn’t have a problem with (moving), but what worried me at the time was just learning everything over,” Evans said. “I thought that was going to set me back a while.”
But sometimes things happen for a reason, Evans said, and the position swap he thought might doom him to a final season on the bench nine months ago has since proven to be a magnificent stroke of luck – for both Evans and Georgia.
“I’m going to benefit more than I thought I was when I first moved here,” Evans said. “I didn’t really think I was going to be a starter at the time, but that just came with learning the plays and stuff like that. I have the physical ability, I just needed to put it to work.”
CJ Byrd’s graduation meant a starting job was open after the 2008 season. When John Knox ran into academic problems and transferred to Memphis Quintin Banks’ knee was slow recovery from an MCL injury, Evans was no longer just a temporary solution to a short-term problem. He was Georgia’s starting safety, and his career suddenly had new life.
“It’s been big for us because he’s had a tremendous offseason,” Martinez said. “We wanted to do it earlier in the process, but it’s obviously paying dividends for us right now.”
The transition from corner to safety didn’t happen overnight, but it certainly came a lot faster than Martinez or Evans expected.
Evans’ experience at cornerback, where he started 11 games during the past three seasons, gave him a leg up in grasping his new job. In fact, where the corner position limited Evans’ ability to utilize his natural skills, he quickly found that safety was a perfect fit.
“He’s always moving and active, he’s always flying around the ball, and that’s what we’re going to need,” strong safety Reshad Jones said. “He brings a lot of intensity.”
Among the fastest players on the team, Evans speed helps him close ground quickly when the ball was in the air. His nearly 200-pound frame – hefty by typical cornerback standards – ensures he can deliver a hit once a catch was made. Most importantly for him, however, the new position opens up the entire field for him to use his vision and experience to be a playmaker rather than simply a coverage corner.
Just nine months into his new role, free safety feels like home.
“I really enjoy safety,” Evans said. “I can see a lot of stuff happening, and I’m eager to get out there and see what I can do when the ball’s in the air.”
Most of those young safeties who appeared to block Evans’ path to the starting lineup are still around, including redshirt freshmen Baccari Rambo and Nick Williams and true freshman Shawn Williams. But rather than making Evans a spare part on defense, their presence has made him even more indispensable.
Evans was the default choice to change positions when Martinez saw a need, and putting him in the role of leader wasn’t much different.
After all, who better to teach the importance of knowledge, hard work and determination? Well, Bryan can do it.
“It makes me feel good that my coaches believe in me that I can play safety, so I’m just trying to go out there and make plays,” Evans said. “I’m just happy that I have another chance to perform, and hopefully this will be my big season.”