Pitt's Dion Lewis has come out of nowhere to become a top back
Pitt freshman RB Dion Lewis has rushed for 1,029 yards and 11 TDs in 7 games
Lightly recruited, Lewis has been an able replacement for tailback LeSean McCoy
"We'd like to have both," Wannstedt said, "but we've turned the page pretty quick"
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Linda Lewis steps inside her dining room, opens a drawer and shuffles through six DVD cases. It's shortly after 7 p.m. on a recent weeknight and she offers one disclaimer before slipping a shiny disc labeled The Nightmare: Part II into the player. "My husband and I usually only play it to entertain visitors during halftime," she said. "I'm not a fan of some of the songs' words."
The action that follows on screen proves more graphic than the rap-based soundtrack. The film's star is Linda's middle son, Dion, the starting freshman tailback at Pitt. Violent cuts up field highlight his development from a skillful speedster to a blur. He slips through holes as defenders slide in mud, tiptoes past pylons and bullies bigger linebackers. Snippets from last season display mobile hips and a mature mind. "Every play was like an orchestrated dance," she said.
Bootleg tapes of Dion Lewis, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Panther who's exploded onto the national scene with 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns through seven games, have been recorded and produced by his older brother Lamar. "I couldn't turn my lens away," Lamar said.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt received a lyricless DVD of Lewis's junior season at Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.) in 2008. Assistant coach Jeff Hafley, knowing the next class may need to replace NFL-bound tailback LeSean McCoy at season's end, brought the DVD into the office. Despite rushing for 979 yards on 79 carries, Lewis was being lightly recruited. Wannstedt watched only five plays before turning it off. He had seen enough speed and strength to offer a scholarship. "But what about his size?" Wannstedt asked.
Hafley was up front with his boss. The 17-year-old was not a 5-11 or 6-foot prototype. He was mature, though, having agreed to attend Blair -- a small, co-ed prep school tucked away in the woods of southern Jersey -- for two years. Wannstedt wanted to take the measure of Lewis without a scale or tape, so he invited him to campus. Lewis passed the eyeball test, but it was the tailback who walked away surprised. "Coach is a lot taller in person," Lewis said.
Last offseason, new Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti was charged with invigorating a squad missing quarterback Bill Stull (concussion), but he found a tailback by the spring game. Lewis, who enrolled early in January, started out No. 3 on the depth chart. Once on campus, he impressed with his bench press (365 pounds), short bursts and understated approach. "We didn't have to de-recruit him," said Buddy Morris, the Panthers strength and conditioning coach. "He just shut up like Dan Marino and Curtis Martin did when they were here."
Running backs coach David Walker noted Dion's ability to process things. "He would tell me he saw things in between series and when we watched tape, he was right," Walker said. "Some guys think they see things, but they are just mistaken by speed."
Lewis swore off standing still five years earlier. One evening after practice freshman year at Albany High, Lewis sat on a sidewalk waiting for the bus when a pit bull appeared nearby. The owner was walking the dog without a leash. Lewis considered running, but also remembered being told by someone to remain still if a dog attacked. The pit bull bit him on the arm, and he needed a rabies shot. "I'll never fail to react on instinct again," he said.
Movement wasn't restricted to the field. Matt Smith, the offensive coordinator at nearby Albany Academy, first saw Lewis play one Friday night in 2005. A co-worker had asked him to watch her son at Albany High. In the first quarter there was a fumble at the 5-yard-line and Lewis, playing cornerback, scooped it and sprinted. What happened next surprised Smith. Opponents stopped chasing 10 yards into the 95-yard return. "Are his parents here?" Smith asked a friend in the stands.
Linda and Leroy Lewis were in attendance. Smith said there was an upcoming open house at his school -- an upscale institution known for its graduating class sizes (40 students) and prestigious alumni (Herman Melville, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.). It was not known for football, but if their son passed the entrance exam financial aid would defray the $15,000 tuition. The family came equipped with a tape on its visit. There were nine games on it. Smith watched them all. Is this kid for real? he asked himself.
When Lewis transferred, his rawness was evident. During the first workout, he put 500 pounds on a bar to squat. His feet were four inches from being parallel. "My God," Smith said, "he's going to blow out his knee."
"No. 28" became the worst-kept secret in the playbook. Smith would call his star's number, springing him with sweeps and watch him go for 80-yard runs. "It got to where I couldn't give him the ball," Smith said. "We had to be polite."
After the state title game, Smith had an unexpected message for the star. "Leave," Smith said. "No one would believe he was good enough up here."
Blair provided the stage for Hafley and others to take notice, but recruiters only saw half of his play there. The school helped assemble a highlight reel of his senior year plays, and Smith, still a mentor to Lewis, told him to "take it for a ride with schools". Instead, Lewis decided to stick with the school that had first shown interest in him. "That's all about his loyalty," Wannstedt said.
Lewis -- more of a tackle breaker than a make-you-miss back like McCoy -- outran his predecessor's shadow immediately. In the opener against Youngstown State, he rushed for 129 yards. In his second game, he broke an 85-yard rush en route to 190 yards at Buffalo. It remained to be seen how he would fare against Big East defenses, but he ripped off 158, 180 and 111 yards against Connecticut, Rutgers and South Florida, respectively. Durability questions dissipated when he carried the ball 31 times while digesting fake blitzes and constant movement in the box against the Scarlet Knights. "Of course, we'd like to have both LeSean and Dion," Wannstedt said, "but we've turned the page pretty quick here."
Forever the headliner in his mother's photo albums, Lewis' legacy is well preserved back home. His bedroom has been converted into a living shrine. Game-worn shoulder pads cover the radiator, a pair of gloves are encased in a glass frame and the white jersey from his first spring game bears scuff marks.
The most prized possessions are in his parents' bedroom. There, in the back of his mother's closet, is a fireproof, hundred-pound safe. Birth certificates lay atop two DVDs -- his junior and senior year discs. The latter edition remains a family exclusive.