April 14, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- As UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was finishing up an interview after Saturday's scrimmage, he spotted tailback Jeff Lewis, who was among the final players to leave the field. Lewis had been doing some extra running in the north end zone with fullbacks Bradie Ewing and Jason Hengel.
"I like the way he goes about his work but he needs a ton of work - he needs it because I think he's got some ability," Chryst of Lewis, a redshirt freshman from Brookfield Central. "Every time he gets a chance to get a rep, it's another chance to grow. To me, he's just a young pup."
Lewis has been limited to a degree this spring by a cast on his right hand. During winter conditioning, he tried bracing himself and ended up straining a tendon in his thumb. "It's like coach Hammock says," Lewis said of UW running back coach Thomas Hammock, "don't let it be a crutch."
Lewis has taken that advice to heart. "It has made me better," he said, "because I've had to focus even more on catching the ball and running and just doing small things with it (the injury)."
But when Lewis fumbled during a recent practice, Hammock got right in his face.
"That's just how coach is," Lewis said. "That was completely unacceptable on my part so I expected him to be on me like that. You probably also saw me running at the end of practice. He's only doing it to make me better. Like he says, `Don't take it personal.' If he wasn't yelling, he wouldn't care."
The Badgers are extremely deep at tailback with Montee Ball, James White and Zach Brown, a fifth-year senior, who redshirted last season. Lewis is just trying to establish his own identity within this position group. At 6-foot-2, 214-pounds, Lewis has good size to go along with his burst through the hole.
"I'm not a bruiser-type of running back," Lewis said. "I can get those three or four yards but I'm more explosive. If the breakaway is there, I doubt a lot of people will be able to catch me. That's what the coaches have told me, `Use the assets that you're blessed with.' So I try to use my speed."
When the Badgers were preparing for Ohio State last season, Lewis simulated Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor on the scout team for the No. 1 defense. And when they were getting ready for Michigan, he morphed into Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson.
"He's like a video game player," Lewis said of the elusive Robinson, who also possesses game-breaking straight-line speed. "Playing Terrelle and Denard on the scout team was a huge compliment and I just wanted to make our defense better. But now it's time to get into our own playbook."
Did Lewis feel like he got better during his redshirt season?
"I did feel like I got better because even if you're running the other team's offense in practice, you can get better playing against the No. 1's," he said. "I tried to grow each week. We're preparing them for a game and we're doing everything they do except stepping out on the field on Saturdays."
In addition to adjusting to the speed of the game, Lewis also had to adjust to the time commitment. "I love football to death so I'm not complaining about it all," he said.
"But it was totally different from high school having a majority of your day being about football when you're not in class."
A week ago, Lewis was excused from practice to attend the funeral of a former high school classmate. Lindsay Huenink, 18, a Brookfield Central senior, was killed after being struck by a train.
"I went to prom with her last year - it's tragic - but she's in heaven now," Lewis said softly. "We last talked just before spring break. When I saw her family, it was surreal. I still can't believe it. But it does put things in perspective for me. I see how blessed I am."
Lewis added that everybody can learn something from this tragedy. "Tell the people you care for that you love them," he advised. "And don't ever take anything for granted."