NEW WESTMINSTER —How exciting it must be for the scores of university football recruiters currently making their pitch to land 17-year-old Evan Nolli, knowing that the young man they are projecting as a future star along their offensive line has as good a chance to wind up being the best defensive lineman in their program.
Let that sink in for a second and then realize that it’s hard to pay a higher compliment to the package of athleticism, skill and unique versatility which Nolli has come to represent as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior lineman for the defending Subway Bowl AAA champion New Westminster Hyacks (1-1, 1-0).
Along with noted returnees like quarterback Kinsale Philip and running back Broxx Comia, Nolli will be one of the key ingredients for a Hyacks team which Friday (7:30 p.m.) hosts the Abbotsford Panthers (0-1, 0-0) in its annual Homecoming Game at Mercer Stadium.
Offers to Nolli are beginning to pour in from across the country, and as of late, there has also been a trickle beginning from south of the line.
The slight majority want him for the offensive line where the maturity of his technique in a demanding Wing-T formation has allowed him to flash a rare combination of athleticism, balance and power.
Yet if you were to grade Nolli on some his other plus traits, like his motor and the way he has learned to use his hands for added advantage, then you would swear he’s always been a defence-only guy.
But in a case of surprise, surprise, Evan Nolli was actually a tight end through his junior varsity career. He only made the full-time switch last season as a Grade 11, yet as seems typical of every challenge he accepts, the transition went smoothly enough that he helped hold down the fort for a Hyacks’ team which went on to win its first ever B.C. senior varsity title.
“It was the right spot for the team, and for his future, and he didn’t push back,” begins New Westminster head coach Farhan Lalji when asked about Nolli’s positional switch. “He’s embraced the lineman’s life and culture. He is a very good player and a very good student and he has received a bunch of early offers. He is going to be one of the most sought-after linemen in the country.”
A FOOTBALL PLAYER’S FOOTBALL PLAYER
At whatever level of football you care to speak about, it’s always fascinating to examine that point in a player’s career when his athletic tendencies in concert with his level of physical prowess dictate natural positional change.
At the very top level in the world, you can take the case of a player like the San Francisco 49ers all-pro offensive tackle Joe Staley, who through his freshman season at Central Michigan was a tight end.
“And J.J. Watt did it, too,” informs Nolli of the Houston Texans’ all-everything defensive end, who strangely enough also attended Central Michigan, playing there as a tight end, before transferring to Wisconsin as a defensive end. “It’s good to see the pros doing it, making that switch from tight end to the defensive line and the offensive line.”
While Nolli has made the switch at the high school level, there is no way to underplay just how valuable a piece he is for a team sitting at No. 3 in the Varsity Letters’ Big 5 rankings and looking to repeat as Subway Bowl champions.
Although a little more accustomed to playing at left tackle within the Hyacks’ deception-filled wing-t offence, his skill set is best served at the left guard spot, and thus as need has arisen, it is there he has come to spend the majority of his time this season.
“He started at tackle last year, but the guard position is the most important one in our offence,” says Lalji. “Our guards have to pull so much and run and be athletic. They have to be able to bend and run like they are going around a track.”
So getting back to that recruiting push he is starting feel, it’s clear why next-level coaches want him, because unlike so many others, he can be brought into a program to either play a host of roles, or fill one with a precision fit.
“He is our best guard and best tackle, but at the next level he might be a centre,” says Lalji of the one position Nolli has not played. “But he can also play everywhere, and that’s on defence, too. He plays at defensive tackle and defensive end. He plays everywhere, and so for us, we’ve been spending some time to find the right mix along the offensive line.”
THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
Skill is one thing. Composure is another. And you need both to succeed.
“He is a rare guy in that he has ‘The Switch,’” says Lalji. “He is very no-nonsense. He’s unassuming, He’s low maintenance. As low maintenance as low maintenance can be. But when the game starts, the switch gets turned on. When the game starts he turns into an animal.”
Ask Nolli about it, and he’ll tell you it’s just a process he has followed for as long as he can remember, dating back to his days as a community soccer player.
“It starts the day of the game,” he begins. “When I wake up, I am thinking about nothing but the game. I listen to music. I see the plays I want to make. Then two hours before the game, I don’t talk to anyone. It wasn’t as intense with soccer, but I have always had this process, to get into my zone.”
And when it comes to advice not football specific, but as an extension of sports psychology, Nolli can lean on his family’s resident Olympian.
“My uncle on my mom’s side is a two-time Olympian,” he says of Ken Padvaiskas, who competed for Canada at both the 1988 Seoul Games and 1992 Barcelona Games in a number of sprint canoeing events. “He calls in to see how I’m doing, and he is interested in my football career.”
Uncle Ken would be proud to know that his nephew has brought a decidedly cerebral bent to life in the football trenches.
“He knows his assignments and his techniques at every position,” Lalji says, acknowledging his senior’s ability to so quickly digest the specific responsibilities required to specialize as a multifaceted blocker on one side, and a guy who can so naturally use all of his gifts to get to the quarterback on the other.
“On offence, teams look for athleticism in a big man, on defence they want explosiveness and motor, and he’s got all of it,” says Lalji. “As a tight end, he had fantastic hands, so he’s used those on the defensive line. He uses them for release moves to get off blocks. He has the hunger to relentlessly pursue the quarterback and the football. Not everyone has the motor or the tenacity of a defensive lineman. Evan has all the traits.”
Since getting his very first taste of life as a lineman back in 10th grade, when he would dabble in the trenches as a varsity call-up from the JV, Nolli has been a fixture in the Hyacks’ weight room.
“Now that I am a senior I can really see the difference,” he says, adding that getting up to between 260 and 270 pounds is a goal he has for his university career.
“I’d like to be 6-foot-5,” he adds with a chuckle of a size which would surely make a whole lot more NCAA Div. 1 programs take pause. “But I can’t control that part.”
What he can control, however, he has.
And what it’s all added up to entering his senior year is a self-made student-athlete (with a love of history and marine biology), whose athletic specialty, above all else, is showing us what a complete football player really looks like.
(If you’re attending Hyack homecoming festivities on Friday, take note that an alumni flag football game begins at 4 p.m., followed by a pre-game party in the family fun zone at 5 p.m., and an alumni reception at 6 p.m. Click here for all the details.)
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