Ricky Hunley and Byron Evans are the top two tacklers in Arizona history, and beyond that, they defined the grit and toughness the Wildcats displayed during the Larry Smith era in the 1980s that put the program on the map nationally going from the WAC to the Pac-10.
Evans, 57, recorded the second-most tackles in Arizona history with 552, trailing Ricky Hunley’s 566, during his career at Arizona from 1983-86.
Passed over in the recruiting process by Arizona State out of Phoenix South Mountain, he evolved into a second-team All-American, as selected by the Associated Press and Football News, his senior season at Arizona in 1986. He was also the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1986. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors as a junior and senior.
Thirty years after graduating from South Mountain in 1982, Evans, also a Philadelphia Eagles great, is serving as head coach of the Jaguars with an array of staff members with pro backgrounds, including former Arizona teammate Marsharne Graves, who is the offensive line coach. Graves went on to play for the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts after his Wildcat career.
Evans’ staff includes storied South Mountain alums such Steve Jordan (six-time Pro Bowl selection of the Minnesota Vikings), Manuel Hendrix (Dallas Cowboys), Terry Wright (Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts), Raymond Perryman (Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars), Rashad Bauman (Washington Football Team and Cincinnati Bengals), Terry Fair (Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams) and Kenny Cheatham (member of three national championship teams at Nebraska in 1994, 1995 and 1997).
In his second year as South Mountain’s head coach, Evans will bring his team to Tucson High on Friday night at 7 for his first head coaching experience in the city where his college career flourished. He will coach about a mile from Arizona Stadium, where his career propelled him to become an Arizona Hall of Famer.
The latest All Sports Tucson Talk Podcast features Evans discussing his return to Tucson, his budding coaching career and his time at Arizona under coach Larry Smith that helped prepare him to be a head coach. He also comments about the current state of the Wildcat program, of which he holds close since Smith and his staff recruited him when many others overlooked him coming out of South Mountain because he was considered too wiry at linebacker.
Evans redshirted at Arizona in 1982, played sparingly in 1983 and then won a starting job in the second game of the 1984 season. His tenacious tackling style was on display for the remainder of his career.
“We didn’t know he would be that good,” Smith said in 1986.
Evans set the school record with 118 unassisted tackled in 1985 and came back with 111 more the next season. Counting bowl games, Evans has two of the top three tackle seasons in Pac-12 history — 211 in 1985 and 210 in 1986.
His most famous play occurred in the 1985 game against Arizona State. With the Wildcats trailing 13-3 late in the third quarter, Evans stripped the ball from punt returner Anthony Parker, with Arizona’s Don Be’Ans recovering for a touchdown. Two Max Zendejas fourth-quarter field goals — from 57 and 32 yards — won the game 16-13 as Arizona prevented the Sun Devils from going to the Rose Bowl.
“Ruben Rodriguez was probably one of the best punters in the conference. He got a lot of hang time (on the punt), and I wasn’t very fast, so it had to have a lot of hang time with Anthony Parker being one of the best return guys,” Evans told Shane Dale in “Territorial,” a book on the Arizona-ASU rivalry.
“And I just said, ‘This is the time that I’m going to make a play,’ and I just spoke it into fruition. I put my head in front of the ball, made a play and got the ball out.”
Evans had 18 career tackles for a loss and intercepted seven passes. He also recovered seven fumbles, two in the end zone.
He had a productive eight-year career with Philadelphia, which picked him in the fourth round, No. 93 overall, in the 1987 draft. In 1989, Evans had 184 tackles and intercepted three passes for the Eagles, prompting Eagles coach Buddy Ryan to call him “the hardest-hitting middle linebacker” in the NFL.
He was a second-team All-Pro selection in 1990 and 1992, serving as the defensive signal-caller for the Eagles’ legendary “Gang Green” defenses.
Evans made 806 career tackles and would have had many more, but his last play came in November 1994 when he severely broke his leg and tore knee ligaments while making a tackle vs. Cleveland. He rehabbed through all of 1995 and into the summer of 1996 before having to retire at 32.
Following his NFL career, Evans has lived in his native Phoenix, where he has served as a pastor at Shiloh Apostolic Church in addition to administering many coaching clinics before becoming South Mountain’s coach before the 2020 season.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District