Not your average Joe: How Iowa football defensive end Joe Evans went from walk-on to starter

Evans wasn’t given preferred walk-on status when he came to Iowa in 2018. Now, he’s a full-time starter on a top 10 defense.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa defensive lineman Joe Evans scoops up a fumble from Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud during a football game between Iowa and No. 2 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022. Evans scored a touchdown on the play. The Buckeyes defeated the Hawkeyes, 54-10.

Iowa football players have Thursdays off during the regular season. And every Thursday, defensive end Joe Evans visits a familiar retreat on the north side of Iowa City.

Abby and Spence Evans, Joe’s parents, have made a weekly tradition out of having dinner with their 23-year-old son on his off day.

The Evans’ family dog, Ghost, sits on a couch at the family home in Iowa City on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (Darren Chen)

Often, Joe isn’t greeted by his parents when he arrives at the ranch-style home off of Court Street. Rather, Ghost — a former shelter dog with snow white fur — meets Joe at the door.

“I wouldn’t put any amount of money on what we have,” Spence said of his family’s weekly dinners. “I think we’ve been very fortunate — knowing not everybody gets that. Sometimes the parents get to see their kids for 15 minutes after a game. We’re very fortunate that we’ve been so close. Joe can just pop over whenever he wants to.”

The Evans’ supper-time get-togethers — which sometimes include Joe’s brother Teddy and sister Sarah — are a breeding ground for conversation, weekly updates, and sometimes even fortune telling.

Before Iowa took on then-No. 2 Ohio State, Joe learned Spence would be sitting near the end zone during the game in Columbus. Spence then jokingly told Joe to bring him to a ball if he scores a touchdown.

Two days after Spence asked his son for a touchdown ball, he nearly got one. 

Just two minutes into of the Oct. 22 game, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud dropped back to pass near his own 25-yard line. Before the Heisman Trophy candidate even had a chance to survey his receivers, Joe was in his face.

Joe started the play lined up near Buckeye left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. outside the hash marks. When the ball was snapped, Joe cut back toward the inside of the field and ran at Stroud, unblocked, whopping him near the 15-yard line. When the ball popped out of Stroud’s hands and landed near the 12-yard line, Joe scooped it up and raced into the end zone for his first career touchdown.

Joe ultimately didn’t run the ball to his dad. But he still recognized him in his own way. 

Joe made a gesture toward Spence with his chest, referencing the pregame bump they share before all of the Hawkeyes’ contests.

“Obviously, I’m not going to do that because it’s a flag,” Joe said of running the ball to his dad on Oct. 22.. “We were just kind of joking around. But the opportunity came, I scooped it, and in my head I was like, ‘Should I run the ball over to him?’ But then I was like, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that.’

Iowa celebrates a touchdown from defensive lineman Joe Evans after Evans scooped up a fumble and scored during a football game between Iowa and No. 2 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022. The Iowa defense scored the lone Hawkeye touchdown. The Buckeyes defeated the Hawkeyes, 54-10. (Grace Smith)

“My family means everything to me. Just being able to celebrate, obviously with my team, but to like look [at my family] and know that I’m thinking about them.”

Growing up, Joe was a rambunctious and undersized kid who dreamed of playing football at Iowa. 

Joe hails from a football family. His dad played quarterback at Iowa for one season in 1989 and went on to coach high school football. Spence’s father, Bob Evans, amassed over 200 wins as a coach at Mount Pleasant High School. Bob was named Prep Football Coach of the Year by the Des Moines Register in 1959 and inaugurated into the Iowa Coaches Hall of Fame in 1969.

While Spence and Abby never pushed Joe toward football, it quickly became clear that he was built for the sport. Before he even put a helmet and shoulder pads on, Joe displayed his toughness and physicality.

Abby said when Joe was 3 or 4 years old he occasionally rode his big wheel tricycle barefoot until his feet bled. Spence added that, in sixth grade, Joe broke his arm. When a doctor went to reset the bone, he warned Joe the process would be painful. After the doctor fixed Joe’s arm, he asked when the really painful part would begin, Spence said.

With a high pain tolerance to leverage, Joe’s football career began to take off when he was 9 years old. Spence said his son was the subject of a special meeting of youth tackle football administrators.

“In Johnston, [Iowa,] they had third and fourth grade tackle football and fifth and sixth grade tackle football,” Spence said. “He was a fourth grader and he was hitting kids so hard that they were getting hurt. One game they actually had to have an ambulance. Then [administrators] had to meet, and it was like this big situation, and they moved him up to fifth and sixth grade football.”

Joe played quarterback and linebacker as a youth football player. During his sophomore year of high school, however, it appeared his days of playing QB were numbered. Joe was called up to the Ames High School varsity team as a linebacker.

Injuries to the Little Cyclones’ No. 1 and 2 options at quarterback soon after he joined the team, however, reignited Joe’s career on offense. In the second game of his sophomore season, Joe came into the game at quarterback. He even changed his shoulder pads at halftime to help him throw the ball better.

“I will never forget that,” Abby said. “We would stand down on the sidelines, and I was talking to someone when [Joe’s older brother Ted] goes ‘Mom, do you realize what’s happening right now?’ And I was like, ‘No, what?’ And he was like, ‘Joe is going to be going in as quarterback.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I was watching the game, but I guess it just didn’t register that he was the next guy in.”

Once Joe got the Little Cyclones’ starting gig, he never relinquished it. Joe played quarterback until he graduated high school in 2018.

Few colleges recruited Joe as quarterback — most looked at him as a linebacker or pass rusher. listed Joe as a zero-star recruit after his senior year of high school.

“I just knew in high school I was going to keep grinding and grinding until I got an opportunity to go play Division I football,” Joe said. “I knew that that was always my goal … If I ever got the opportunity, I knew that was what I was going to go do. So, I never really thought about me being a zero-star. I just knew I was going to come into whatever program it was and work my butt off and just compete.”

Joe was recruited by Minnesota State, Iowa Western, Wayne State, and South Dakota. Iowa and Iowa State were the only Power Five teams to give him a chance to play.

The Cyclones offered Joe a spot as a preferred walk-on. The Hawkeyes told him he would have a place on their roster, but they didn’t give him preferred walk-on status.

Iowa didn’t seriously recruit Joe until January of his senior year of high school — after his final football season. Because the Hawkeyes pursued him so late in the recruiting process, Joe never attended an Iowa football game as a recruit. Rather, the Hawkeyes took him to a men’s basketball game when he visited campus.

Even though he grew up in the Cyclones’ backyard and played football at Ames High School, Joe has always been a Hawkeye fan — his dad played at Iowa and a number of his family members attended the university.

One of Joe’s bedroom walls even sported a stained wood plaque adorned with football cards. The cards were encased in plastic frames on the plaque and featured former Hawkeyes like running back Shonn Greene, linebacker Chad Greenway, and kicker Nate Kaeding in their NFL uniforms.

Joe’s childhood fandom pushed him to Iowa — even though would’ve been on scholarship at a smaller school.

Not being a preferred walk-on at Iowa, Joe could not start practicing with the Hawkeyes until the first day of the 2018 fall semester. He didn’t play his freshman season and eventually moved from linebacker to defensive end.

Spence and Abby Evans, Joe’s parents, pose for a portrait at their home in Iowa City on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (Darren Chen)

Spence said Joe weighed around 205 pounds about six months before he joined the Iowa program, but he was used to competing as an undersized player because he started at center during his high school basketball career. Joe, who is currently 6-foot-2, often faced opposing centers that towered over him at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8, Spence noted.

Joe played seven games during the 2020 season, recording seven tackles and one sack. His performance led the Iowa coaching staff to put him on scholarship.

Joe’s big break came in 2021.. Then pushing 250 pounds, Joe played in 14 games and racked up 34 tackles, seven sacks, one forced fumble, and a pass deflection.

This season was Joe’s first as a full-time starter. He’s amassed 37 tackles, six sacks, and two forced fumbles in 12 starts.

“I mean, I knew he could do it,” Abby said of Joe’s rise from walk-on to starter. “… His goal was to play college football. He just never gave up.”

Joe has not decided what he will do after the Hawkeyes play the Wildcats in the 2022 Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Dec. 31. Because of NCAA COVID-19 rules, Joe could return to Iowa for a sixth season. He can also declare for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Most NFL Draft websites don’t feature a pick projection for Evans yet. Some don’t even feature a scouting report on him. If Evans were selected in the 2023 or 2024 NFL Drafts, he’d be the first Iowa defensive end picked since Chauncey Golston in 2021.

“That would be his end goal, I think, is to be in the NFL someday,” Spence said. “But he’s still got some college football to play.”