North Carolina’s top high school football 5-star recruit is a 6-foot-6, 245-pound edge rusher from Lee County. The scary part — Desmond Evans is only getting bigger and better.
Story and photos by Billy Liggett
Weather postponed the actual game, so Desmond Evans spent the first Friday night of his senior high school football season putting Twitter into a frenzy.
The five-star defensive end from Lee County High School — considered one of the Top 25 high school football recruits in the country and the top prospect coming out of North Carolina this year — announced his Top 5 college choices on Aug. 23 with a tweet at 8:40 p.m. that night.
UNC. South Carolina. Virginia Tech. Tennessee. Florida.
The long-awaited announcement (Evans has been sought after by Div. I programs ever since his freshman year) elicited a few thousand likes, hundreds of retweets and hundreds more comments — from excited fans of the five schools to all-out trash talking from grown men eager to see what Evans can do for the Gator, Volunteer, Hokie, Gamecock or Tar Heel faithful on Saturdays.
And you can’t really blame them for being pumped.
At 6-foot, 6-inches tall and a lean 245 pounds, Desmond Evans looks like a man among boys on a high school football field, towering at least a head taller than most of the kids around him. He’s quick. He’s strong. He possesses a nice blend of “quiet and humble” off the field and “focused anger” on it.
“Since the day I met him, he’s been one of the most humble kids I’ve ever been around,” says Head Football Coach Steve Burdeau, entering his second season at Lee County. “You’d think with the situation around him, he’d be big-headed. But he’s been the same kid the whole time.”
Considering some of the schools that have made up the more than 20 serious offers Evans has received in the last few years, that’s impressive. The schools interested in him that didn’t make his Top 5 are a murderers’ row of elite programs — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State … to name a few.
The five he chose aren’t so bad, either. The national recruiting website 24/7Sports — who compares him to NFL star Jason Pierre-Paul and even projects him as a potential NFL first-rounder — has all along listed UNC as the favorite to land Evans (he’s made several unofficial visits to the campus and has even posed for photos wearing Carolina blue). The young man, about to turn 17, says there are no favorites among his Top 5, though he admits Florida and Tennessee might be more of a surprise to even the people who know him well. When he comes down to it, he says, he wants three things from his college.
“Development. Can I go there and grow both as a person and an athlete?” he says. “Success. Can we compete, and can we win?
“Most important is education. At the end of the day, when you leave college, you’re getting into real life. If football doesn’t work out for me, I want to be successful.”
Desmond Evans has always been tall.
He looked like he could be in high school the first time he stepped onto a football field at 8 years old. He was bumped straight to varsity as a freshman at Lee County High School, and four games into his high school career, Evans received his first offer from a college.
That’s right. Four games into his freshman year. The University of Kentucky (who might have had an ulterior motive with basketball in mind) sent him his first recruitment offer when he was 14.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” recalls Evans, who says former LCHS Coach Burton Cates handed him the news (and the letter) on the field after that fourth game. “I mean, I understood the process, and I thought it’d happen one day. But I didn’t know people were interested that early.”
The following year as a sophomore, Evans registered 14 sacks. As a junior — with teams smartly choosing to run away from whatever side he lined up on — he tallied 12 more sacks, 69 total tackles (25 of those behind the line of scrimmage), forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
Entering his senior year, Evans seems to have topped out at 6-6, but what has coaches at the college ranks excited is that there’s room to “bulk up.” That process began in earnest over the past summer, according to Defensive Coordinator Andrae Jacobs, who joined Burdeau’s coaching staff last season.
“I wish I had a picture to show of what he looked like in the spring of 2018 — that first spring when I met him,” Jacobs says. “And I would put that picture next to what he looks like now … it’s night and day. He took everything really seriously this past offseason. He got to work.”
The coaching staff’s strategy for using Evans this season was on display during the season opening 47-18 win over E.E. Smith. Evans lined up on both sides of the defensive line, though much of the opposing offense found a way to avoid his area. He also saw time as a receiver on offense, played upback on kick returns and rushed the punter on fourth downs.
Any thoughts that the Yellow Jacket coaching staff would rest its five-star recruit or keep him off the field to avoid injury were put to rest in Week 1. And according to his coaches, Evans wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Dez has extremely high expectations,” Burdeau says. “As the season goes, he probably won’t get to play as much as he wants to — and he won’t like that.”
His defensive coordinator loves seeing him play both sides of the ball.
“Anytime he’s on the field, he’s going to draw attention,” Jacobs says. “He likes to compete — and it’s our job to put him in the best position to be successful as a team. A kid with his ability, it doesn’t matter where we put him on the field … the other team is going to game plan for it.”
Out of uniform, Evans is still noticed (the height will do that). But his humble qualities his coaches rave about and his quiet, almost shy, demeanor comes forward in person. Asked about his “laid back” personality, Evans smiles.
“Laid back? Definitely,” he says. “That changes big time on the field. I don’t know why or what it is … it just happens.”
Like him, Evans’ favorite NFL players can be found all over the field — defensive end J.J. Watt, wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Odell Beckham and free safety Jalen Ramesy come to mind first. He’s met and talked to another pro he looks up to — UNC and Carolina Panthers legend Julius Peppers, who offered the young man some advice heading into this final stretch of high school and college recruitment.
“He just said go to the school I want to go to,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s my choice. Others can have input, but it’s my choice. He also just told me to chill and have fun doing it.”
Asked about his goals in college or maybe even at the professional level, Evans says he has them. But he’s focused on his senior year of high school first.
“I want to win every game this season and get that ring, basically,” he says. “If we don’t win it all, is it a disappointment? Should be.”
Asked again about his final college choice, he smiles and says everybody will have to wait.
As for the pros?
“That’s the end goal, but that’s a long way off,” he says. “That’s the plan, but if it’s not for me, that’s why I’m going to college. There’s always something else out there.”
The Lee County Yellow Jackets are a regular season powerhouse.
That’s not exactly a “positive” statement for Steve Burdeau.
In Burdeau’s first season as a head coach, Lee County was riding high as 12-0 before being knocked out of the second round of the Class 3-AA playoffs in a tough 29-26 loss to Dudley.
In 2017, the last season in Lee County for legendary head coach Burton Cates, the Jackets were again 12-0 heading into the second round of the playoffs against Cape Fear. That team had nine shutouts in its first 12 games and had allowed a total of 37 points all season.
Cape Fear rolled them, 24-7.
It was a third-round exit in 2016. First round in 2015. First round in 2014.
An undefeated regular season and a Cape Fear Valley Conference title won’t be enough for the 2019 Yellow Jackets. But it takes more than declaring such if Lee County is going to take the next step this November and, hopefully, December.
“I told the boys and their parents this year that any time they get a calendar or a schedule from me, it’s going to end with the state championship,” says Burdeau. “So how do we get there? One thing I evaluated when I got here was our strength — I thought it could be improved. We want to be stronger, so our returning players gained a combined 5,000 pounds this past year. We’re going to be bigger and stronger this year, and that’s going to be big for us the deeper we go in the playoffs.”
Lee County is also, for lack of a better term, “stacked” this year. Even without the state’s top prospect, the Jackets have several players getting serious looks from Div. I schools. And that starts under center with quarterback Colin Johnson, who has a 24-2 record as a starting quarterback.
Running backs A.J. Boulware (2,200 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2018) and Larry Baldwin (455 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns) are a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield. Defensive back Jayden Chalmers has committed to UNC, and Evans’ linemate De’Andre Prince is coming off a 2018 campaign that saw 31 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
“We’ve got a big opportunity to do something great this year,” Burdeau says. “No one has higher expectations than me.”
Lee County is Burdeau’s first head coaching gig after several years as a coordinator at Middle Creek, Richmond County and, most recently, Orange. He says job offers at other schools were there, but Burdeau was patient and held off until the right job came along.
He thinks he’s found that in Sanford.
“I want to be here a long time,” he says. “This is a great school, and the community support here is great. I’ve had success at my previous schools, but I was never in a hurry to leave those jobs. Being patient has definitely paid off for me.”