Dane Evans always had the potential to become a prolific quarterback. It simply took some time to get there.
As a 5-year-old in his first season of youth football, Evans wasn’t ready to accept a future under center. He had other plans for his career.
“Being a quarterbacks coach, I enjoyed watching (Joe) Montana and (Steve) Young and all those guys,” said Evans’ father, Damon Evans. “When he first started playing, he wanted to be Jerry Rice. He ended up playing tight end his very first year he ever played.”
Dane Evans’ pedigree ultimately won out. He has been a quarterback since that year, a journey that brought him to the University of Tulsa and could culminate this fall with a final season in which Evans can become the top passer in program history.
“I remember when I came here, I told myself I wanted to be the best when I left,” Evans said. “By that I kind of meant, when you think about our program and the quarterbacks who have come through, you think about my name.”
A significant asset on the path to greatness has been Evans’ cannon of an arm, likely a genetic gift passed down from his father, who led the state of Oklahoma in passing yardage in 1987 at Anadarko High School.
Having coached football at the high school level in Oklahoma and Texas for 23 years, Damon Evans can identify whether quarterbacks have the elusive “it” factor. He knew early on what his son could achieve.
“We’d go out in the yard and as a 2½-year-old, he was throwing the ball better than junior high kids I’ve seen,” Evans’ dad said. “He always had a real strong arm.”
When he was 11, Dane Evans quarterbacked the Arlington (Texas) Thunder to the 2004 Pop Warner national championship. The same year, his baseball team won the USSSA World Series and Evans was a state wrestling champion at 92 pounds.
Success on the football field continued in Sanger, Texas, where his family moved when he was in junior high. As an eighth-grader, Evans watched recordings of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State games with his dad, who was Sanger’s offensive coordinator, and together they designed the system in which he would go on to set school records.
Under his dad’s tutelage, Evans developed into a Division I prospect while throwing for more than 9,000 yards and close to 100 touchdowns in three years as a high school starter. After his sophomore season, college coaches from across the country were traveling to Sanger, half an hour south of the Oklahoma border on I-35.
Despite an overwhelming amount of interest, the offers didn’t follow. In a pre-Johnny Manziel era, everyone was seeking the 6-foot-4 quarterback and ignoring the qualifications of those closer to 6 feet like Evans.
Exhausted by the recruiting process, Evans pounced on an intriguing opportunity in June 2011, when new TU coach Bill Blankenship extended an offer the day after a quarterback camp. Upon visiting campus the next day, Evans was fully on board.
“I remember when I first got my offer, I didn’t really know much about Tulsa,” Evans said. “My dad grew up in Anadarko, so he knows about all of the football around here. He told me, ‘Tulsa always has good quarterbacks and they always throw the football.’ ”
Evans had his sights set on the starting role from Day 1, enrolling early to participate in spring drills amid an open competition to replace G.J. Kinne. Nebraska transfer Cody Green secured that role in 2012 and again in 2013, but his injuries and ineffectiveness thrust Evans into duty as a redshirt freshman.
His first of five starts in a stunning nine-loss season that followed an 11-win one, Evans endured a painful midseason debut at Tulane. In the 14-7 defeat, he accounted for three turnovers and passed for a meager 139 yards.
“You can prepare for the opportunity all you want, but you don’t know what it’s like until you’ve played,” Evans said. “I haven’t watched that game at Tulane in forever, but I bet if I did I would be pretty mad at myself.”
Fans who saw that performance likely could not have predicted the progression that would transpire, but it certainly didn’t happen overnight. His first full season as starter produced two victories, and teamwide deficiencies resulted in additional pressure on Evans, who threw 17 interceptions in 2014.
“It was kind of like, ‘You have to go out there and save us,’” wide receiver Josh Atkinson said. “He was getting a lot of flack for it, but he knew we had his back and the whole team stood behind him. We knew Dane could play. We knew he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
The hiring of Philip Montgomery, a renowned quarterback mentor, played a role in Evans reaching new heights last season, when he threw for 4,332 yards and 25 touchdowns with eight interceptions and ranked seventh nationally with 333.2 passing yards per game.
“He wants to be coached,” Montgomery said. “He wants to listen and he wants to be pushed. When you have that type of mentality, good things will happen for you.”
Having five quarterback coaches in five years might not be considered ideal, but Evans soaks up instruction like a sponge. Couple that with a competitive fire and a relentless work ethic, and the result has been staggering improvement: an increase in completion percentage from 43.1 in 2013 to 55.4 in 2014 to 62.9 in 2015.
“All of his skills are things he’s worked tremendously on,” Damon Evans said. “His natural ability is being able to throw the ball, but all the other stuff is what he’s had to work hard on. He’s worked really hard.”
Dane Evans, who wants to play football for as long as he can before launching his coaching career, has matured at TU from a long-haired skateboarder into a savvy senior leader who needs 31 passing touchdowns, 2,604 passing yards and 3,169 total yards to tie the school records in each of those categories.
“It’s been fun,” Evans said. “I’ve really had a blast here. I’m excited for this year with our guys, especially the guys I came in with. … If I end up breaking those records, it will just be good for our team because that will mean we’re having a good year.”