OXFORD – Flying under the radar in July and August is perfectly fine with Kendrick Lewis. He knows he’ll be flying to the football in September.
Lewis was one of the top playmakers on the Ole Miss defense in the back half of last season, when the Rebels closed with six straight wins.
While the Rebels have been summer’s trendy top 10 pick, there’s been scant attention for Lewis on preseason All-SEC teams, drawing only a fourth-team mention in Phil Steele’s annual.
“I didn’t even notice, to tell you the truth,” he said.
A converted wide receiver, Lewis, in his second season at free safety, showed a knack early on for getting near the big play but not completing it. There was a missed sack opportunity that would have secured a win at Wake Forest and later a sure interception that was tipped into the hands of Florida’s Percy Harvin for a Gators touchdown.
With snap after snap on game days and Lewis’ concentration on hard work and fundamentals during the week things began to change.
“When you’re trying to make that transition from a guy really struggling to play at this level to a guy making a name for himself, you’re going to hit some and miss some,” Ole Miss safeties coach Kim Dameron said.
“Maybe the most important play he made all year was on the last play of the first half in the Cotton Bowl when he came from across the field and tripped up (Texas Tech quarterback) Graham Harrell at the 2 with no time on the clock. We went into halftime with momentum as opposed to them just having scored.”
It was one of seven tackles – five of them solos – for Lewis in the bowl game. He ended the season as the team’s leader in tackles with 85, a notable achievement for a guy who struggled to down opposing ball-carriers as a sophomore in 2007, his first season on defense.
“My tackling was very poor my sophomore year, and that was a challenge that I put on myself. I wanted to get better in that aspect of my game,” Lewis said. “I worked real hard at it, and I was able to accomplish some good things.”
When the new staff arrived for the spring of 2008, Dameron noticed a flaw in Lewis’ form that made tackling difficult.
“He was trying to tackle with his feet too close together. Also, he was taking some poor angles in pursuit. Now he’s corrected that, and he’s able to be more aggressive.”
Tackling wasn’t the only improvement for Lewis, a displaced Katrina refugee who finished his high school career in Gainesville, Ga. He began to break on the ball better, leading the team with four interceptions and sharing the lead in passes defended with six.
Soon he began to close the deal on big plays. He picked off passes against Alabama, Auburn and LSU and was active with stops behind the line.
Lewis was involved in special teams trickery too, catching a 33-yard fake punt pass to set up a first-half touchdown in the Rebels’ 31-13 win at LSU. He also had a sack and a tackle for loss against the Tigers.
“He’s worked at it. You don’t just tackle SEC running backs because you want to,” Dameron said. “You better be great fundamentally.”
As is often the case, playmakers have a platform to speak – to lead. Leadership from departed seniors Peria Jerry and Jamarca Sanford was key to the Rebels’ defensive chemistry last year, an integral element in their success.
Recognizing the void, coaches asked Lewis to assert himself more. Lewis has embraced the role.
“I took a lot of notes from the guys last year. Peria, Michael Oher, Jamarca Sanford, Jason Cook … those guys were tremendous leaders. I saw where their leadership got us, and I have taken it upon myself to not let that go to waste, not take a step back. I want to help keep this team rolling.”
Parrish Alford/Daily Journal