Once an Ames High School quarterback, Joe Evans turns heads as Hawkeye defensive end

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Bruce Vertanen needed someone to quarterback his Ames High School offense in 2015, he turned to a sophomore linebacker.

Joe Evans held the job for three seasons with the Little Cyclones. He threw 55 touchdown passes. He ran for another 26.

And he carried himself like a defensive player the entire time.

“He would be the person that delivered the blow on a tackle,” Vertanen said of Evans. “It wasn’t like he got tackled. He attacked the tackler.”

When former Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan went to check in on Evans over the years, he saw a defensive player. The Hawkeyes asked Evans to walk on last season, picturing him at linebacker.

They gave Evans a quarterback’s number, though: 13.

Evans redshirted in 2018. Morgan retired, with Kelvin Bell the replacement as defensive line coach.

On media day, Bell expanded on Evans’ improbable story:

“We recruit high school quarterbacks because that head coach has some trust in that kid,” Bell said, mentioning former Iowa defensive stars Micah Hyde and Chad Greenway. “You’ll find a place for that kid to play, and you can trust him because he’s played quarterback. He’s ran the show. And now you give him a smaller role, he’ll totally soak it up.”

Bell has found a new place for Evans, and it’s on his defensive line. Now at 238 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, Evans is happy to find himself slotted in at a “rush end” spot, where he’s asked to make a beeline for opposing quarterbacks.

He’s been so impressive since making the switch in the spring that Evans’ name continually comes up when talking to Iowa coaches. Evans even had a jarring tackle for loss from his new position during Iowa’s Kids Day scrimmage Aug. 10.

“Coach came up to me with the opportunity, and I was really excited about it,” Evans said of making the move closer to the line of scrimmage.

“We tried some things out in practice, and it was working pretty well. They didn’t really have a pitch. I just said, ‘Whatever I can do to help the team.’”

Iowa defensive end Joe Evans (13) reacts after making a stop during the Hawkeyes Kids Day scrimmage Aug. 10. The onetime quarterback at Ames High School is learning a new position, and loving it.

Senior linebacker Amani Jones made a similar move. He is ahead of Evans on the depth chart. But it’s certainly possible that both could be called on to wreak some havoc this season.

None of this surprises Vertanen. He said he was always amused when college recruiters came to him trying to figure out what position Evans could play at the next level. Vertanen wondered why they worried about that. Just bring the kid in and figure it out from there, he told them.

Which is what Iowa has apparently done.

Evans only played quarterback at Ames because two teammates were injured early in his sophomore year. He was too good of an athlete and leader to relinquish that job. By Evans’ senior year, Vertanen did something he never had before: He put Evans back at middle linebacker, letting him play both ways against Iowa’s biggest high schools.

Evans responded with 60 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles.

Vertanen said he once asked former Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud to play both ways. But that was just for one game.

Evans was a team captain as a junior and senior, the first time that had happened at Ames.

“He was 100 percent accountable. That’s one of the first things we look at. Words mean nothing unless you’re accountable,” Vertanen said. “And I think that predicts success in anything you try, whatever he’s going to be in life.”

Evans grew up a Hawkeyes fan in the back yard of the Cyclones because his parents, Abby and Spence, both graduated from Iowa. His father also played football for the Hawkeyes.

“I knew as a kid I always wanted to play here, and that’s something special for me. It’s always driven me,” Evans said. “I remember freshman year in high school talking to my parents on how I wanted to be an Iowa Hawkeye and the steps I needed to get there. My passion for the game has been the biggest factor."

Bell saw the same thing. He didn’t want to pigeon-hole Evans as a linebacker.

“Football players just find a way to be productive regardless of where you put them,” Bell said.

“(Evans) moves around well and he’s not afraid to strike a guy. He understands leverage. And when you understand leverage, getting your hat underneath an offensive lineman’s hat and having your hands inside, you can play at 240 pounds and be fine.”

Evans’ biggest assets at defensive end are his speed and an uncanny nose for finding the football.

He said he doesn’t even miss playing his sport’s most glamorous position. He’s looking forward to toppling quarterbacks instead.

“I did have a lot of fun being a quarterback in high school, always having the football in your hands,” Evans said. “But now, I love being on the defensive line with that group of guys. It’s been just fantastic.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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