TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's Rashaan Evans has saved his best for the last game two years running.
He twice sacked Clemson's Deshaun Watson in the national championship game two years ago as a backup linebacker with all of seven tackles coming into the finale. Last season, he racked up a career-high 11 tackles against the Tigers.
Now, Evans is an All-American and an elder statesman of the nation's No. 1 defense. He's hoping to finish easily his best season and his college career with a third big national championship game performance when the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide faces No. 3 Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
"I don't know what it is, maybe just the fact that it's a bigger game," Evans said Thursday. "Just with any player, I feel like if you're in a bigger game, you've got to bring out the best possible game you can bring to the table. That gives your team a better chance of being able to win a game like this."
Now, it would come as no surprise if Evans delivers a big game. He had nine tackles in the Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Clemson , after all, and has emerged as a star his senior season.
Even last season, he was overshadowed by Butkus Award winner and first-round NFL draft pick Reuben Foster.
Evans is now the leader of a linebacker group depleted by injuries, with starter Anfernee Jennings (knee) now joining Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dylan Moses on the sidelines. Evans also missed two early games with a groin injury but leads the Tide with 11.5 tackles for loss and is second in tackles (66) and sacks (6.0).
In six playoff games, Evans has 30 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Only he and punter JK Scott have played in all four playoffs.
He was unknown nationally — beyond his lofty recruiting rankings — before that two-sack 2015 title game.
"There's going to be a couple of guys in this game that may not be well-known right now, but they show up in this game," Evans said. "There's always going to be somebody like that. All I can do right now is continue doing what I've been doing, and showing up in big games and mentoring a lot of these guys that have never played in a game like this."
Like Foster, Evans was a five-star recruit from Auburn High School down the road from Alabama's chief rival. Both took some time to cultivate major roles at Alabama before emerging as dominant players as seniors. Evans, a recent graduate, has a shot at following Foster into the draft's first round.
Learning patience, no matter how highly recruited you were, is one of the lessons Evans will carry with him when he leaves Alabama. Along with All-America honors, that degree and four straight trips to the College Football Playoffs.
"I feel like that can take you a long way regardless of whatever situation you do face," said Evans, who spent two years as an outside linebacker before moving inside. "Going through some of the same things that Reuben went through, he had to wait until his senior year to really get on his feet and get a name for himself. The same thing happened for me.
"But I think the two best things for us were to be able to go through all these things and to learn to kind of be unselfish, think of the bigger picture. Things like this, they build character for anybody."
He has done it amiably enough that Alabama beat writers gave him the "Good Guy Award" for a player who is accommodating and thoughtful in interviews. Evans also got to celebrate the Sugar Bowl win Monday night with fellow linebacker Mack Wilson by dumping a sports drink on defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt , who is coaching his final game before taking over the Tennessee program.
"That was one of those moments I'll definitely remember for the rest of my life," Evans said.
He's had some of those in the title games, too.
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