Before the final snap of the Seattle Seahawks’ first preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tanner McEvoy had a feeling the ball was coming to him.
Seconds were ticking off the clock as the offense was attempting to line up for one last shot at the end zone. McEvoy, the former Wisconsin Badgers athlete who played three positions during his time in Madison, was lined up to the far right at wide receiver against Chiefs cornerback Malcolm Jackson.
Watching the replays, former TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin looked twice at the nearly 6’6 McEvoy against the 5’11 Jackson — a rookie from Charleston Southern.
“We looked at each other in the eyes, and I thought, ‘Alright, he’s probably coming to my side,’ — and I was right,” McEvoy said on Tuesday.
“I just played off the ball. In those situations, you have to get in the end zone, establish some position, and just go and get it.”
McEvoy did just that, coming down with the 37-yard reception across the goal line. Running back Troymaine Pope converted the ensuing two-point conversion, and Seattle escaped with a 17-16 victory.
The former Wisconsin standout contributed not just on that last play of regulation, but also hauled in a 32-yard reception against Jackson in a contested reception earlier in the drive. He finished the game tied for the team lead in receptions (3) and led the team in receiving yards (77). He saved the exclamation point for last, a moment that many teammates celebrated after the touchdown.
“When I came to the sideline, all the older guys here — I think every one of them — came up and congratulated me,” McEvoy said. “They were all into it, so it was a lot of fun.”
McEvoy is one of a few former Wisconsin players who caught on to NFL teams as undrafted free agents after the 2016 draft. Finding a home in Seattle, he’s battling to earn opportunities and ultimately land a roster spot with the NFC West power.
He signed with the Seahawks in the spring, but initially worked as a safety for head coach Pete Carroll’s defense. During training camp, the coaching staff moved him back to wide receiver. Making the switch to another position is a daunting situation for any player, but for McEvoy, it’s been a way of life for the past three seasons.
Initially committing to UW as a quarterback in 2013, McEvoy transitioned to wide receiver after fall camp before a wrist injury halted those plans. Then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda converted him to safety, which allowed him to play in 11 games with three starts.
Switching back to offense, he was named the starting quarterback over Joel Stave and started the first five games of the 2014 season. Complementing running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, he rushed for 574 yards and eight touchdowns while throwing for another five.
Last season in Paul Chryst’s first season as head coach, McEvoy moved back to safety — earning consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention with a team-leading six interceptions. He also earned time as a wide receiver, catching 10 receptions for 109 yards, while averaging 7.8 yards per carry on 17 rushes in a wildcat (see: “TannerCat”) formation.
To put it bluntly, he’s used to change.
“It’s kind of [been for] every year for football, I’ve had a new transition, so I’ve learned to adapt to situations and how to learn offenses pretty quickly,” McEvoy said when asked about moving back to wide receiver. “Obviously, it’s been challenging, but I’ve adapted, been patient, and they’re really good at teaching the offense in kind of simple matter or way to do it. It’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell believes that versatility -- especially the time under center and in the shotgun — could pay dividends in picking up the Seahawks’ offense.
“He’s seen it from a lot of perspectives,” Bevell, himself a former Wisconsin quarterback from 1992-94, said to reporters during his press conference on Tuesday. “I think it’s cool he’s seen it from the quarterback perspective, so I think there are some things he’s able to pick up or have by osmosis, so to speak. He spent a little bit of time on defense, but I think probably the most help was when he was at the quarterback position.”
McEvoy’s size and physicality can be a huge asset to any offense, as seen in that performance last weekend against the Chiefs. He worked in with the second group of wide receivers on Monday, and had the opportunity to earn reps with another famous Wisconsin quarterback, Russell Wilson.
The Hillsdale, N.J., native humbly admitted he’s worked in with different groups over the course of camp, and injuries to other wide receivers have allowed him to get those reps with those veteran, established players. With several players vying for roster position in a contested receiving corp, he’s working to make those opportunities count when called upon.
Bevell acknowledged McEvoy has a lot to learn yet while adjusting to the pro game and Seattle’s offense. The offensive coordinator, however, boasted he is a “special athlete” with “special skills for his size.”
“He’s making great progress,” Bevell continued during the press conference. “By no means has he arrived, and there’s still obviously little details at the position that he can still continue to focus on, but we really like what we see.”
McEvoy’s solid opening performance wasn’t the only impressive debut by a former Wisconsin player. Quarterback Joel Stave completed 8-of-13 passes for 76 yards and an interception for the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night, but was 6-of-7 for 63 yards in his first drive that led to a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Two former UW wide receivers, McEvoy and Alex Erickson, made the biggest splashes, however. McEvoy reeled in that Hail Mary, and Erickson scored two touchdowns for the Bengals. That included an 80-yard punt return where the former walk-on acted as a pinball, bouncing off of defenders until he found the end zone.
McEvoy tries to keep tabs of his former teammates when possible in between the hectic schedule of an NFL rookie.
“I was really fired up for him,” McEvoy said of Erickson’s punt return for a touchdown. “I saw [former Wisconsin cornerback] Darius [Hillary] had a few tackles. It’s fun seeing these guys [play in the NFL], and obviously I’ll see Joel in just a few days.
On Thursday night, the Seahawks face the Vikings at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. McEvoy will get a chance to reunite with Stave, his former quarterback at UW, though they will be on the opposite sidelines. Both are fighting for spots on an NFL team — a goal McEvoy’s aiming to achieve with his play early on.
“It’ll be fun to go against Joel, and [to] just see all of my former teammates trying to make a roster like I am.”