There are still two and a half months to go before James Evans, the likely heir to former Indiana All-Big Ten punter Haydon Whitehead, takes the field for the first time in an IU uniform. But the freshman from New Zealand is already well acquainted with Memorial Stadium.
Well ... the stadium steps, that is.
That’s because Evans spent some time running up and down each section of the facility’s grandstand after breaking a rule early in spring ball. The specific infraction? Evans removed his helmet while still on the field of play — a 15-yard penalty if an official were to spot it on a fall Saturday.
“I really didn’t realize that you couldn’t take it off,” Evans said, flashing a smile while talking to reporters on Thursday. “I think I was only two yards from the sideline. After that, I realized how big our stadium was.”
Consider it part of the learning curve for the Prokick Australia product, the latest punter to make the trek from the renowned international kicking academy to Bloomington. Evans, an early enrollee in Indiana’s 2021 recruiting class, has been on campus since January, studying the finer points of American football and acclimating to life in the United States. It’s all been a big adjustment for Evans, but after five months on Hoosier soil, IU’s new punter is growing more comfortable with his role on the field and the day-to-day routines off of it.
“Since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, I’ve watched football — college football, primarily, just because it was something to do on a Sunday back home,” the Auckland native said. “But until you get here, you don’t realize the scale of things and the general public, how much they care about college athletics and how nice the facilities are and all that kind of stuff.”
Evans grew up playing squash and rugby, but the 20-year-old reached a point in his teenage years when the latter sport simply did not move him like it once did. And so, like a growing number of his countrymen, Evans decided he might give American football a try. Worst case, he could have some fun kicking the ball around outside. Best case, he could find his way onto the well-worn path to playing college ball in the U.S.
Eventually, Evans honed his talent to such a level that moving to Melbourne to study the game at Prokick made sense. So off he went, determined to turn himself into a legitimate prospect at the prestigious academy famous for churning out scores of college specialists — several of whom have reached the NFL.
But Evans’ education in the sport didn’t end there. Since officially joining IU’s program earlier this year, he’s been taking advanced instruction from Indiana special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin and others inside the program.
“(I’ve learned) there’s more to punting than just kicking a ball schematically,” Evans said. “Coach Tee did a really, really good job throughout the spring of teaching me everything and easing that transition. Obviously, the helmet incident happened and that was kind of funny. I went on Twitter and I was getting ripped. It was a good laugh. But yeah, just watching film with (Teegardin) and following my lines directionally behind the shield and stuff like that (has helped). Having him there and teaching me all that kind of stuff really eased that transition.”
Whitehead has helped, too. IU’s former punter, himself a Prokick product, has made himself available as a resource for Evans. The two have worked out together, kicked around, and texted about the adjustment to life inside the Big Ten.
“I’m very fortunate to have him still in my life,” Evans said.
Of course, football is only one of the realms Evans is still learning to navigate in Bloomington. The weather in south central Indiana has provided him with a different set of challenges.
“Initially, it was really, really cold,” Evans said. “I rocked up in shorts and jandals — like, flip flops — and it was negative-4 degrees Celsius, 25-degrees Fahrenheit. So Coach (Tom) Allen was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ ... Back home, it gets hot, but it doesn’t really get too hot. It gets cold, but it doesn’t really get too cold. I think Day 2 here, I went to the mall and bought like three or four big coats and stuff like that because it was like, ‘I’m going to die out here if I don’t.”
Otherwise, Evans feels like he’s fitting in just fine. His fellow specialists have brought him into their group and helped him feel more at home. He’s enjoyed Bloomington staples like BuffaLouie’s and he’s developed a taste for Chick-fil-A.
So far, things are good, especially now that his days of running the bleachers at Memorial Stadium are done. Although his helmet is heavier than he expected it to be, Evans is getting used to that, too.
And now he knows where it belongs — firmly on his head.
“I mean, 50,000-plus capacity stadiums are no fun to run up,” Evans said. “So yeah. Lesson learned. That’s not something I’ll do.”