Jeff Lewis hasn’t played a lick of defense since his sophomore year at Brookfield Central High School, when he was a running back and linebacker on the junior varsity team.
Lewis’ experience playing safety has basically come during 7-on-7 drills over the summer, in player-run “captain’s practices.”
Yet, Lewis is probably the favorite to start at free safety for the University of Wisconsin football team, entering preseason camp today.
That reveals two things about the Badgers: just how desperate they are at safety and what the new coaches think of Lewis’ physical skills — especially his speed.
“There are so many things we’re doing, if a ball breaks out there needs to be someone that can run that thing down,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said, in addition to man-to-man coverage of running backs, tight ends and slot receivers.
“He can do all of those things. I know he’s bright, I know it means a lot to him. A lot of the intangibles are there, we’ve just got to put it together.”
After UW coach Gary Andersen was hired, he approached Lewis about moving to safety, saying he had success in the past with similar moves. But Lewis wasn’t ready to do it.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to make you move, but if you ever have the thought of moving or want to move, just come to me and we’ll take the necessary steps,’ ” Lewis said.
“After the spring, ‘I was like, why not give it a chance?’ ”
Lewis has no regrets about the timing, although having 15 spring practices at safety would have put him further along. A third-string tailback who has rushed 37 times for 200 yards and two touchdowns at UW, Lewis needed one last spring to feel like he gave running back his best shot.
“I think I needed that last time at running back to make sure,” Lewis said. “It’s not that I disliked anything about running back, it’s something new that I need in my life. I just listened to my heart and ran with it.”
Lewis should benefit from instructional videos made by the coaches, which included voiceovers by the position coaches.
After watching the videos over the summer and learning about the installation, which will take place in camp, players got to apply what they learned in the 7-on-7 drills.
“That was huge for us,” Aranda said. “There’s a greater understanding, greater comprehension … (Lewis) basically went through a training camp throughout summer.”
The 7-on-7 drills gave Lewis a comfort level in pass coverage. The next step is learning the run fits and how to tackle.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Lewis has experience tackling on the kickoff team and has no reservations about the physical part of his new position. After trying to block linebackers and taking hits as a running back, he is looking forward to delivering a few of his own.
The biggest adjustment so far for Lewis has been a different mentality on defense. When his play was called at running back, he knew he would get the ball and be asked to do something with it. On defense, he’s one-eleventh of the puzzle and must do his part, even when the ball doesn’t come his way.
If this works, the Badgers would have a big, fast and rangy safety combination with senior Dezmen Southward (6-2, 210) and Lewis — two of the fastest and most athletic players on the team.
Lewis said the coaches “would like to have my athleticism on the field any way possible. I’m still playing, so whatever position I’m at, I’m happy. I just want to be on the field, at the end of the day.”