UW football: Lewis' game starts to come into focus

2011-08-12T05:30:00Z 2012-05-23T17:53:40Z UW football: Lewis' game starts to come into focusTOM MULHERN | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

University of Wisconsin redshirt freshman tailback Jeff Lewis' eyes are wide open now.

It didn't always seem that way last year for the Brookfield Central product.

Things move so fast on the football field at this level, Lewis felt like he was running last season with one eye closed.

"Compared to last year, it's like opening up a whole 'nother eye," Lewis said. "In high school you just read the block, but here you have to anticipate it before it happens because it's so fast."

Lewis is one of the fastest players on the team, but his inability to see things develop robbed him of his greatest asset a year ago. It made him indecisive and slowed him down.

"Coach (Thomas) Hammock stressed to me this summer I need to get quicker feet," Lewis said of the Badgers' first-year running backs coach. "I can't be heavy on my feet like I was last year. That's one thing I'd like to show, that I can change directions as well."

Lewis has outstanding straight-line speed, but this offense requires backs to make one strong cut, then accelerate through the hole. That takes patience, vision and timing.

"You have to watch the blocks develop," Lewis said. "Second time around (in the offense), you know what to expect. You can anticipate it more than just reading it."

Lewis has a good role model in that regard, saying he wants to be "like James White, cut on a dime."

In fact, there are role models galore in the crowded backfield. Junior Montee Ball and White, a sophomore, are playing at a high level and it's trickling down.

"I think those two (Ball and White) have got something special going right now," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "And it has rubbed off on Jeff Lewis. To this date, I think Jeff has probably had as good a camp as I can expect."

Lewis is trying to have a similar impact on freshman Melvin Gordon, who is fourth in line. Lewis got to know Gordon, from Kenosha Bradford, in the recruiting process last year.

"I kind of look at him as a little brother," Lewis said. "It's cool to have somebody look up at you, but also work to push you harder, to get you better. I do the same to him."

Just as the competition between Ball and White has been great for them, the same relationship is developing with Lewis and Gordon, too.

Gordon rushed for 2,009 yards and 38 touchdowns as a senior and had several of the upperclassmen raving about him after summer workouts.

He made some mistakes protecting the football and in pass protection in the first couple of practices and heard about it from Hammock. But Gordon has turned into a quick study.

"I don't think he's ever really been involved in detailed protection," Bielema said. "I think his learning curve is going to be very, very steep."

Lewis, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and Gordon, 6-1, 200, have much in common, from running styles, to speed, to being state products.

"I'm heavier than him, but for the most part, everybody says we run the same way and we look the same when we're running," Lewis said.

UW is so deep in the backfield. Junior John Clay left for the NFL, signing a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the overall talent level went up.

"Last year at this time, I don't think there was as much talent in the backfield as there is now," Lewis said. "It keeps everybody on their toes and keeps them working every day so you can never lose a step."

Players such as Lewis and Gordon, with their blazing speed, are changing the perception of UW running backs.

"But we still run with power," Lewis said. "We don't want the fans to think it's going to be all speed. We still keep our shoulders low and get yards when we need to get them."

All four backs also catch the ball well, which adds another element to the offense.

"Coach Hammock stresses that, you can't be a one-dimensional back," Lewis said. "You have to be a threat in all dimensions of the game."

With so many threats in the backfield, carries could be hard to come by for Lewis, who also hopes to make an impact as a kickoff returner. But one of the best things the backs have going for them, Lewis said, is they are focused on improving, not touches.

"We only want success for everybody," Lewis said. "Like coach Bielema said, we're a team, there's no one shining star. If somebody can contribute, we're happy with that."

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