“Always Smiling”: Evan Hull’s Unwavering Positivity
By Eric Rynston-Lobel
It’s 7 a.m. The sun rises over the Lake Michigan horizon. Evan Hull arrives at Walter Athletics Center fired up––as you might expect from someone coming off a 216-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance.
Except the third-year running back from Minnesota doesn’t only grace his teammates with his positive energy and contagious smile when things are going well; he makes sure to do it every single day. Even at 7 a.m.
“Always smiling. Coming into meetings screaming, ‘Let’s go! Let’s get it!’” said first-year running back Anthony Tyus III of Hull. “Very energetic guy. Always happy. Always bringing the energy. Uplift people. That’s what really sets Evan apart.”
Hull set himself apart on the field last Saturday, turning in a performance that earned him Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors. But while the stats might be gaudy, it’s Hull’s positive attitude that rubs off the most on his teammates.
“Just a love of life, I guess,” Hull said of where his boundless positivity comes from. “At the end of the day, playing football is a privilege, and so you can’t be out here just being serious all the time. … It’s a big thing just having a great attitude. That’s one thing you can control, that you can focus on every day to bring other people along with you too. That energy is contagious, so one person has a great attitude, and then all of a sudden, everybody’s having a great time. A smile can go a long way, really.”
Northwestern running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Lou Ayeni has known about this intangible since he recruited Hull. “They all talked about his work ethic and his character, and for me, that’s huge,” he said. In his 11 years as a college football coach, he’s had the opportunity to work with dozens of running backs, but the ones who wound up playing on Sundays shared similar characteristics: strong work ethic and high character.
“It’s a choice. He always chooses to be positive,” Ayeni said about Hull. “He chooses to grow and learn. He loves to be coached. That’s what’s so refreshing.”
Hull spearheaded the ‘Cats’ offense in their 35-6 win over Ohio on Saturday with his second career 200-yard rushing performance. Late in the first quarter, he barreled his way through the Bobcats defense, full speed down the sideline for a 90-yard touchdown run––the third-longest in Northwestern history.
The performance proved to him his process has worked. “I think the biggest place I’ve improved is just mentally with my confidence,” he said. “Knowing the game plan and knowing my running style better, running more physically and being more decisive has been a huge difference between last year and this year.”
By the end of last season, Cam Porter had taken the reins as the ‘Cats’ top RB with Hull his backup. After Porter suffered a season-ending injury in August, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said he viewed Hull more as a “1B” rather than a second-string player. Now, they’re not only relying on him to be the starter, they need him to be a catalyst for an offense that’s looked inconsistent through its first four games.
“I think he’s a guy that just embraces being the feature back,” Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s win. “His work ethic is incredible. He’s a guy that’s one of the first in the building and one of the last to leave. He loves the ball in his hands but is a really good route runner. He’s tough in protection. He’s a complete back.”
Hull’s contributions aren’t lost on his teammates either, especially the younger players.
“Getting thrown in there, I was ready because of Evan,” Tyus said. “Everything Evan told me, taught me, his energy and the attitude he brings not only to games but practice, that’s changed my perspective and allowed me to perform at a higher level.”
With the ‘Cats heading into Big Ten play with a question mark at quarterback, there’s added responsibility on Hull and the rest of the running backs to help take some of the pressure off whoever’s under center. And as well as he’s played so far, Ayeni knows Hull has much more left in the tank.
“He’s been solid. He’s gotten better every week. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet, honestly,” Ayeni said. “He’s not satisfied. I’m not satisfied. And we need him as we keep going, so he’s gotta keep producing and doing a good job.”