On a warm July morning, inside the Lee County High School weight room, a dozen football players are hard at work.
The group goes through an intense training circuit, curling dumb bells, mixed in with push ups, back to curls. At one end of the cramped room is Desmond Evans.
The 6-6, 240-pound defenseman is easy to spot.
Evans, who’s still weeks away from turning 17, is built as if he has been in a college weight-training program. But he just recently learned how to lift weights, according to his coach, Steve Burdeau.
The No. 1 player in the state, and the No. 2 weak side defensive end in the country, Evans is barely old enough to drive, but has some of the top football coaches in the country traveling to see him. The class of 2020 five-star prospect, who had 12 sacks and 25 tackles for loss last season, is the first No. 1 football player in the state since 2016 to come from the Raleigh area.
With that, he has shifted some of the recruiting power back to the eastern part of the state, away from the Charlotte area, which had taken over the recruiting rankings in recent years. Evans, though, doesn’t see himself as a big-time high school football prospect. But his goal is to one day end up in the NFL, like Richland County’s Mario Williams and Bailey’s Julius Peppers.
“I don’t really think of all that, I just think of myself as Desmond,” Evans told The News and Observer in a one-on-one interview. “I’m just playing football, the game I love, and just trying to go to the NFL.”
As Evans leaves the weight room and makes a slow trek across an empty gym, he has his head down, dreads covering his face. He speaks, introducing himself, his voice barely above a whisper. He quickly dips into an adjoining classroom and takes off his shoes.
It’s time for yoga.
Desmond Evans’ scholarship offers
With the kind of production that Evans has had in high school — he’s made 114 tackles in the past two seasons — it’s no wonder he has more than 20 scholarship offers, so many that he laughs at the thought of trying to remember them all.
He does, however, remember the first one.
“It was Kentucky after the fourth game of my freshman year,” Evans said. “Right after that game I got offered.”
Power 5 football programs, including N.C. State, UNC, South Carolina and Alabama, have been going after him ever since.
Evans’ athleticism — he’s a basketball player, too — didn’t come naturally, though.
“I was trash,” Evans said. “Football, I didn’t know how to get in a stance, I didn’t know what to do.”
His transition from a football player who couldn’t get in a three-point stance, to one who fires out of it faster than offensive linemen can react, wasn’t that difficult.
“I just worked hard and had good people in my circle,” Evans said, making it sound routine. “That’s how I succeeded.”
For the Lee County basketball team, Evans averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds as a junior. He jokes about how he used to barely hit the rim when he shot, the ball sometimes ricocheting off the bottom of the backboard.
The sport, however, is his first love.
Evans stays grounded
Sanford, where Evans lives, is located between Raleigh and Fayetteville and has a population of 29,313. One of the main draws for kids in the city is sports, Burdeau, Evans’ football coach, said. So it’s no coincidence that the best high school football player in the state is from there.
A Lee County senior, Evans works hard at his sports.
Burdeau said it’s helpful that the most talented player on his team is also the hardest worker. The other players take notice and it spreads. But Evans doesn’t have the ego that could come with being the best. Burdeau says he doesn’t get caught up in the latest rankings or the number of stars beside his name.
“Again, give him credit for it,” Burdeau told The News & Observer. “In that locker room it could be rough. Some people could want people to see them get the attention, get the letters, he’s not that.”
Staying on task, almost having tunnel vision with what’s in front of him, helps keep Evans grounded.
“You just think of what’s important to you,” Evans said. “You don’t get caught up in all the hype, you just stay humble. My goal is to be successful and that’s one of my fears, to not be successful. That’s what I do every day, strive to be successful.”
Burdeau laughs at the thought of comparing the mild-mannered Evans he first met in May 2018, to the tackling machine Evans becomes on the field on Friday nights.
“I think with him he can flip that switch on and off,” Burdeau said. “All the great ones are able to do that, they can be a different guy talking to someone, and when it’s on the field, the lights come on and in between the lines, practice field or game field, he can do it.”
A friendly push for UNC football
Burdeau said the convoy of coaches that have come to see Evans began last spring.
Evans estimates that between 20-25 coaches stopped by Lee County High this past spring — Dave Doeren from N.C. State and Mack Brown from UNC among them. Burdeau said Florida’s Dan Mullen and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt have shown up, too.
“I’m sure in the fall more will come around,” Burdeau guesses.
Evans doesn’t know if he’ll enroll early, but he wants to announce his college decision in December, around the time of the early signing period. He has his top five schools in mind, but declines to share that or his list of upcoming official visits.
In the meantime, the letters — and visits — keep coming. Evans gets so many envelopes he doesn’t know what to do with them all.
“I throw them away,” teammate Jayden Chalmers says to Evans, as he’s standing nearby.
That’s an easy decision for Chalmers to make. The 5-11, 160-pound, three-star class of 2020 cornerback committed to UNC in June and has no interest in offers from other schools. UNC was Chalmers’ dream school, so he didn’t have to think long after the Tar Heels made him an offer.
Chalmers’ task this fall, now, is to help sway Evans to join him in Chapel Hill next season. Evans admits that having Chalmers, a friend he grew up with, already committed to UNC “helps a lot.”
Chalmers is already doing his part. Whenever he sees anything UNC-related on social media, or when the Tar Heels’ staff sends him something, he is quick to show it to Evans.
Evans hasn’t made his way out of the gym before Chalmers confirms he would reach out to Evans later to talk recruiting. But with a few unofficial visits already under his belt, Evans knows exactly what he’s looking for in a school.
“First, it’s education, getting my degree,” Evans said. “Second, development and third, success.”