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Independence football in Joe Evans' good hands

By Langston Wertz Jr.
lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

Nine years ago, Rocky White was at West Mecklenburg High. He said he had a feeling one of his chief assistants, 23-year-old Joe Evans, was going to be a football head coach one day.

“A guy who was really going to be a head coach lives it 24 and seven,” said White, now the coach at South Mecklenburg High. “Joe was one of those guys that if I told him to be there at 5 a.m., he never asked why, and he was there at 4:30.”

On Tuesday, Evans, now 32, was named to replace Bill Geiler at Independence High, one of the state’s top programs.

Independence also is one of the state’s biggest pressure cookers.

Expectations always are high for the Patriots, who made eight state final and 10 state semifinal appearances from 2000 through ’09.

Since 2009, however, Independence hasn’t been past the second round of the playoffs. Evans, who has been offensive coordinator for three seasons, said he is tired of that.

“I’m ready to get to work,” he said Tuesday afternoon between classes. “I’m chomping at the bit. I really think, if you handle everything the same way and keep the core values set in place by (former Independence) coach (Tom) Knotts and coach Geiler, it’s business as usual.”

Evans is a good choice. He knows the history of the school. He has worked there for three years. Evans also knows Charlotte football. He played football, basketball and baseball at West Mecklenburg High before graduating in 1998.

He graduated from Appalachian State in 2002 with a degree in elementary education.

Since then, he has been an assistant coach and junior varsity coach at West Meck, coach at Northeast Middle School, where he worked with several current Independence stars, and he now has spent three years at the Big I.

Geiler has groomed him well, giving him more and more responsibilities, beyond his offensive coordinator duties, with each passing year.

The kids at Independence love Evans. I remember when I wrote a story during October about sophomore quarterback Kelvin Hopkins – who will be as much a centerpiece to Evans’ first team as Chris Leak was to Knotts’ in 2000 – and Hopkins raved about the guy.

Hopkins and the other players know Evans. They know what he’s about. The system won’t change much. On defense, Evans will have to promote or find a defensive coordinator to replace Geiler – who along with retiring Butler defensive coordinator Steve Shaughnessy are the best of their generation.

But here’s the best news, if you’re a Patriots fan. The 2012 team was very young, and Independence appears to be getting the type of talent it was attracting just before its run of seven straight state titles.

Now to go with the young talent, Independence is getting a young, enthusiastic coach who plays the same type of wide-open offense fans are used to seeing.

Evans has a big sense of humor. He laughs a lot and he laughs hard. He is married with a 41/2-year-old son and a 9-month-old daughter. If this is the start of Independence 2.0, the Patriots and their new coach can grow up together.

“This is the first time since 2000 that Knotts or Geiler hasn’t led this team,” Independence athletics director Kelly Lewis said. “We had to make sure we found the right person and we feel like Joe will keep us going in the direction we’re headed.”

Knotts, the best coach in Mecklenburg County history, left after a 2009 state semifinal loss to Butler. Geiler, then defensive coordinator, took over and Independence was 3-8 and missed the 2010 playoffs.

Geiler worked hard to get the program back on its feet. The past two seasons, Independence is 20-6. Four of those losses are to Butler, the state’s top team in any classification that will graduate 35 seniors.

Geiler said his goal was to leave the next coach in a better situation than what he took over and he has done that. Evans’ first team should be in position to challenge for a championship.

“The sky’s the limit, man,” Evans said. “We’ll go as far as these kids want to go. We’ve got a great group. They’re working hard in the weight room, which sets the tone. We have a lot of football talent, a bunch of young guys learning and maturing.

“Our job is to put them in the right place and push them. I’m tired of going home in the (playoffs’) second round. We’ve got to start working on that.”

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