When Evan Sprayberry arrived at Tabor College for camp prior to the 2016 football season, he thought to himself how nice it would be to one day see his name among the All-Americans featured on the wall of the Bluejay locker room.
It’s an elite group, graced by the likes of Sprayberry’s former teammates and fellow defensive linemen Dylan Delk and Derrick Lawrence Jr., among others.
Each year, the American Football Coaches Association selects 25-player teams in its five divisions, including the NAIA,.
This year, Sprayberry’s name will be added to the wall.
The 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pound redshirt sophomore led the nation in sacks (16) and sacks per game (1.5) in 2016 and was one of 11 defensive players in the NAIA to receive first-team honors from the AFCA.
Sprayberry holds the distinction of being Tabor’s third first-team All-American, joining Jon-Michael Bergeron (2012) and last year’s addition, Delk.
“I was kind of shocked at first because being a sophomore on the field, they don’t like to do that,” Sprayberry said of the moment he learned of his selection. “I kind of just sat there for a minute. I almost teared up a little bit.”
Sprayberry also ranked fifth in tackles for loss per game (2), and seventh in both fumbles forced per game (0.4) and tackles for loss (22).
“I didn’t start the season very well,” Sprayberry said. “Our first game against Dakota Wesleyan, I missed three sacks. I didn’t have a good camp. I was missing tackles, I was making mistakes, and I was really getting frustrated and down.
“Then the Saint Mary game, I had two sacks at the end of the game within the last three minutes, and that’s when (I) kind of hit my groove and was OK after that.”
Tabor head coach Mike Gardner said Sprayberry is his own worst critic.
“What drives him is I think he genuinely wants to be excellent,” Gardner said. “That’s something in him that he really pushes himself to be. It’s an intrinsic motivation. There’s nothing really that you have to say to him to get him going.”
Sprayberry was quick to credit his coaches and teammates for helping him achieve success, not to mention the hours of preparation watching game film and dissecting scouting reports.
“Trust was a big thing,” he said. “Trusting in the coaches, trusting in my teammates, trusting in God. You trust your coaches to put you in the right position to make plays. You trust your teammates to be there for you, because without a secondary covering and without other linemen in the middle taking on double teams—like Mike Andrews and DiMitri Bowie—I don’t get it.
“This year, we had an offense that put up a lot of points, so the other team had to throw the ball a lot. I just had to trust in those guys to do their job.”
“I was an every-down player this year,” Sprayberry said. “A lot more was expected out of me, and I was glad and happy to take on that role.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Sprayberry was used primarily in pass-rush situations. Still, he earned honorable mention All-KCAC accolades, tallying 60 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss.
“I don’t think it could’ve gone any better,” Sprayberry said of his first year on the field. “Being in college, not a lot of redshirt freshmen or true freshmen play.”
At the beginning of the 2016 season, Sprayberry said his goal was to make the playoffs again, having helped Tabor secure its first home playoff win by defeating Doane, then losing to top-ranked Morningside in the quarterfinals in 2015.
“Going in this year, (we) wanted to just kind of let it be known that we’re not just a KCAC conference champ,” he said. “We want to be able to make some noise on the national level. I think that’s going to be a goal from here on.”
Tabor went 8-3 this fall, returning to the national stage for a rematch with Morningside. Sprayberry was credited with 58 tackles (5.3 per game) and was one of 22 NAIA finalists nominated for the 2016 Cliff Harris Award, which recognizes the nation’s top small college defensive player.
“Evan, obviously, had a really break-out season,” Gardner said. “He did some similar things last year. The difference with him this year, though, is he did more against the run. His run-game defense was much better, but we also asked him to do a lot more.”
Sprayberry said his highlight of the season was the Bluejays’ 47-19 rout of McPherson Oct. 29. He recorded five sacks but said the game’s significance came not from his personal statistics but because it was his grandfather’s birthday and his great aunt from Alabama was in attendance.
“I’m really close with her and she was there,” Sprayberry said. “Just being able to play that well for my grandpa’s birthday and for (my aunt) to be there, I think that was really cool.”
Asked what motivates him when he takes the field, Sprayberry referenced his high school days at Moore (Okla.), south of Oklahoma City.
Sprayberry played on the varsity squad his junior and senior years and twice received all-city recognition. But his performance his senior year left something to be desired.
“I didn’t have near as good of a senior year as I wanted to have,” he said. “So I think every day that kind of motivates me to keep going, like don’t let that happen again. I want to be the best I can be at it.
“Looking back now, I think I kind of got complacent, especially in the offseason after junior year in the summer leading up to senior year, thinking it was going to be the same. It just wasn’t.”
Now, he’s motivated to make the most of every opportunity.
“In high school, I kind of knew that I (had) a chance to play college ball, so it’s not going to be over yet,” he said. “Now knowing that this is probably going to be it, I’ll just give it everything.”
Sprayberry started playing padded football at age 5 and has played a number of positions, including safety, linebacker, defensive end and nickel.
He was recruited by Tabor’s then-defensive coordinator Steven Miller, and also visited Doane and a Division II school in Tahlequah. After coming to Tabor, he was ready to make his decision.
“I just fell in love with the people here and kind of the small-town feel,” he said. “I think what really did it is when I first started getting all the calls and emails and stuff from coaches, I would get online and look at their websites, and I liked Tabor’s athletic website. That’s kind of weird, but I really liked it.”
Gardner said Sprayberry reminded him of a smaller version of Delk in high school.
“I felt like he had a really high ceiling,” Gardner said. “We really liked his athleticism a lot and knew if he was going to be here, we could redshirt him and develop him and he could be something that would be pretty special.”
Sprayberry is majoring in history and secondary education and hopes to coach one day, adding that it’s his dream to be the head coach at his high school. Sprayberry intends to graduate in spring 2018 but said he plans to return to finish his last season of eligibility that fall.
His goals moving forward focus more on the team than personal accolades.
“Obviously, individual stats are great and all, but when people ask me, like, ‘How many sacks are you going to get this game?’ I’ll tell them, ‘I don’t care if I don’t have any. I just want (the team) to win,’” he said.
“I had a great game against Morningside and we got beat by a pretty significant number. I would’ve given up all those numbers if we would’ve got to win and keep playing.”