There’s something different about Missouri cornerback Akayleb Evans. At a time when NFL Draft prospects have to answer thousands of similar questions about their NFL aspirations, it’s not uncommon to hear the same stock answers, the usual clichés, the singular aim of attaining the lifelong goal. Ultimately, Evans wants the same as every other prospect and has the talent to achieve it.
But, there’s more than that to this young man.
Akayleb Evans has more than one greatness in mind ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft
“I want to be a great man,” Evans tells me during a recent sit-down interview with Pro Football Network. “You don’t want to be a great athlete and an okay man, you know?”
There’s a sincerity in Evans. He’s polite, passionate, and exudes a positive energy. Every step along his football journey — one that’s taken him from McKinney, Texas, to the University of Tulsa, and eventually to Missouri — has been made with the goal of attaining personal excellence as well as sporting success.
The Missouri Tigers cornerback isn’t just playing lip service to this desire for off-field greatness, either. It isn’t something that he’s decided that he wants to strive for as he’s on the precipice of reaching the highest level of the sport he’s chosen to pursue. Words speak louder than actions. And Evans has been acting upon his desire to be a great man since before he was legally able to call himself one.
“I just wanted to give back to McKinney,” he begins to explain the Akayleb Evans Foundation that he set up while still in high school. “Just being able to give back to my community, to be able to show that I appreciate and care about where I come from. That means the world to me. It feels a lot better to give than to get. It’s something that as you mature and grow up, that’s something you understand and feel.”
“Legends start at home”
The foundation serves various people and purposes, from offering annual scholarship opportunities for high school kids to Evans giving out gift cards to healthcare workers during the global pandemic. Actions speak louder than words. It doesn’t take many minutes spent in the presence of the Missouri cornerback to understand where the desire to be a great man comes from, however.
“It came about from a conversation with my mom. She was like, ‘you don’t have to be rich or in the NFL to give back to your community.’ Legends start at home was the whole motto.”
Home is a fluid term for athletes. At any given minute, home can be a different city or even state. Evans has lived in North Carolina, McKinney, Tulsa, and Missouri, with his next destination to be decided in April. However, the family home provided by Calvin and Nita Evans is one that has supported, nurtured, and developed Evans’ outlook on life from the get-go.
“They’ve been very important. I don’t make any major decisions without the input of my close family, it’s a team effort. Even my agent decision — I wanted someone who aligned with my family and our values. When I came out of high school, I made my college decision based off how the values aligned with my family. What we have in our household is very important to me. They played a huge part of where I’m at right now.”
Emerging as a great athlete at a young age
While Evans aspires to be a great man, he arrives at the gates of the NFL as a result of being a great athlete. The Missouri cornerback is one of the most physical cornerbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft class, and he put in an impressive athletic performance at the NFL Combine. While Evans always dreamed of reaching this point, his parents weren’t always quite so impressed and reassured by his athletic excellence at a young age.
“When I was young, I always felt like I was going to make it to the NFL,” Evans grins. “It’s a funny story. We had a parent-teacher conference and my teacher was like, ‘Akayleb is doing decent here, decent here. But, there’s only one area where he’s really excelling. His athletic ability is crazy, he’s off the charts.’ My mom was like, ‘well, what is he going to do with that?!'”
When the family moved to Texas, it became apparent what Evans was going to do with that. Exposed to the likes of Marion Barber III and Adrian Peterson, Akayleb fell in love with physical football and loved the competition it provided. He played running back early on, transitioning to wide receiver early at McKinney High School before finally settling on the position he’s made his own.
“As it happens, I was having a conversation with my mom, and she was like, ‘look, the NFL is starting to transition to bigger and taller corners. At receiver, you’re typical size. If you go to corner, you’ll stand out.’ I was like, ‘you know what mom, you’ve got a good point.’ So I decided to switch over and great things started to happen. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Success on the field doesn’t translate to the recruiting process
He had a renowned defensive back coach in Clay Mack to help smooth the transition. Evans also looked to a first-round cornerback who became one of the best in the game to model his game around as he found his feet at the position.
“My favorite person to watch and mold my game around was Patrick Peterson. I felt like he was so technical at what he did. He’s a willing tackler like I am. Just everything about him, his mannerisms and all that, I respected a lot, and I wanted to model my game after. He was definitely that guy for me.”
Despite being something of a late bloomer due to his junior season switch to cornerback, Evans was still productive in his two seasons as a starter for McKinney. The young cornerback tallied 128 career tackles and logged 5 pass breakups in a senior season that comprised of just eight games. However, Evans was just a two-star recruit, overlooked by the major recruiting sites.
“I always use that as motivation,” Evans reflects on his recruiting process. “People are gonna rank you, have opinions. But I always feel like you can’t stop what God’s blessing is. I definitely felt disrespected, but I used it as motivation. I try to make everything that might be a negative into a positive. That’s how I used that.”
Tulsa aligns with personal and professional goals
Although he was a two-star recruit, Evans held Power Five offers from Kansas and Iowa State. There was additional interest but never an official offer from in-state TCU. However, the physical cornerback committed to Tulsa before his senior year, a decision that he never looked back on for multiple reasons.
“Tulsa was really where I wanted to go from the jump. Their whole motto is ‘faith, family, and football’ and I wanted to go somewhere that aligned with what my family was about. It was close to home but not too close to home,” he says with a cheeky laugh. “Everything aligned in my opinion. You’re always going to have struggles wherever you go, but I was able to grow on and off the field. I’d do it all over again.”
The struggles certainly didn’t come in the first year. Whereas a lot of freshmen redshirt their first season as they adjust to college ball, Evans knew that scenario wasn’t going to be for him.
“I was having a conversation with my parents before I went there, and I was like, ‘look, I’m not redshirting.’ It’s the competitiveness in me. I know it’s not horrible to redshirt, it’s a normal thing. But at the time, I had to make an impact, had to be on the field. Whatever I put my mind to, I’m gonna go do that.”
Injury setback helps Evans to realign his personal and professional goals
During his first two seasons, Evans tallied 47 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and 1 tackle for loss as both player and program began to ascend in the college football landscape. However, a season-ending injury caused Akayleb to refocus on his goal of off-field greatness.
“At that moment, I realized that there’s relationships and friendships that you have to make sure you keep strong. I realized there were some that I’d let drift away because I was so focused on the sport. I was able to take a step back and realize that these people are very important to me, with or without football, so make sure those relationships are strong. Since then, I make sure that people I love are good. That injury was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
What followed was a season that Evans describes as the “most exciting season of playing football” as Tulsa embarked on a run to the AAC Championship Game. “We let loose, and that’s when you see the best results,” he reflects on the 2020 campaign. At the end of the year, at a crossroads between his college and NFL career, the ascending cornerback transferred to Missouri.
“My position coach left Tulsa and went to Missouri, so that was a factor,” Evans opens up about his decision to transfer to the Tigers for 2021. “Steve Wilks was the defensive coordinator. He has NFL experience, and I know that’s where I’m trying to go. I can pick the brain of him, so that would be a good move for me. It all aligned in my opinion.”
Evans steps up to the SEC and shows out at the Senior Bowl
“It’s a decent step,” Evans explains when asked about the step up from the AAC to the SEC level of competition. “I feel like guys are a little faster, week to week. But there’s a lot of guys in the American that can play. You have to play in that conference to understand it. So, I feel like I was prepared for the SEC, honestly, but I was able to learn a few things too.”
Evans secured his first career interception in his Missouri debut, describing the moment as “lit,” “cool,” and something “I’ll forever remember.” He also set career-high pass breakups as he emerged into the national spotlight. The performances didn’t go unnoticed as the Missouri cornerback received an invite to the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl.
“It meant a lot. I remember when I was at Tulsa, the Senior Bowl was something I wanted to get invited to, but I wasn’t the right age, wasn’t that ‘for sure’ guy. I wanted it so bad and it wasn’t going to happen. That sort of stuff sits in my mind. When I finally got the invite, it was a true blessing. I was definitely grateful that Jim [Nagy] invited me and I was able to go there.”
Like everyone that makes the journey to Mobile, Evans spoke with all 32 NFL teams at the Senior Bowl. As he points out, however, “guys talk about how there’s a team they never really talked to and they end up drafting them.” The Missouri cornerback just wanted to showcase his very best self off the field, while trying to display what he brings to the field as an NFL prospect.
Physicality, versatility, and an aim for greatness
“Physicality and willing,” Evans replies when asked about what he brings to the NFL. “Willing, not just to tackle but to give your body. Not a lot of guys are willing to do that. My thing is, whatever team I’m on, I’m fighting with a whole bunch of other guys for a common goal. It would be disrespectful for me not to give everything I’ve got for the man next to me. I’m gonna always be that guy for a team, I think that separates me.”
Since the transition to cornerback ahead of his junior season of high school football, Evans has been building for this moment. A size, speed, and physicality threat, there’s been talk of him even transitioning to safety at the next level. It’s something that he’s conscious of — he hasn’t discussed it with teams, but he’s prepared for it regardless.
“My goal has always been to have the size of a safety, but be able to move like a corner. I want to be versatile, to be able to do whatever is asked of me in the NFL. Whatever a team needs me to do, I’m going to be able to do it. Always be prepared.”
That is just one goal for the Missouri cornerback. It’s one of many as he prepares for the NFL Draft. He has the potential to be a great NFL cornerback. However, the ultimate goal is the one that’s always been there. “I want to be a great man.”
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