Xavier Lewis is used to being near the box.
As a high school quarterback, he played in that imaginary rectangle running from one offensive tackle to the other and stretching to the linebackers.
He’s back — kind of.
LSU’s redshirt sophomore from LaPlace has spent the first half-dozen spring practices at the nickelback spot, shifting from the deep safety position where he’s spent his first two seasons in Baton Rouge. As nickel, Lewis is responsible for the slot receiver, the third or fourth wideout normally off the line of scrimmage and near the tight end or tackle.
He’s happy to be back near the box.
“I love it. I’m around the ball more, can make plays coming off the edge,” Lewis said. “I feel like the position is easier for me. It comes natural.”
Halfway through spring, Lewis is running with the first string at a critical position for the Tigers. The nickel is virtually a starting spot, used heavily because of the amount of receiver-heavy spread schemes in college football.
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In fact, LSU started nine of its 12 games last season in a five-defensive back set, only starting in the 3-4 base defense against pro-style squads like Wisconsin, Florida and Arkansas. Tre’Davious White served as the nickel through the first sevens games before Kevin Toliver’s struggles and injuries forced coaches to move White outside and replace him at nickel with Dwayne Thomas.
Both of those guys are gone, and a competition is waging for the partial starting spot. Sophomore Kristian Fulton and junior walk-on Abraham Wallace are behind Lewis, an East St. John product who ranked as high as the 13th-best cornerback in the 2015 class.
Lewis, a guy teammates refer to as “Zay," has waited two long years for this — playing with the No. 1s. He redshirted as a freshman and played sparingly last season, mostly serving as a special teams player.
“I feel as though I needed those two years,” Lewis said. “Coming in, I didn’t really play defense a lot in high school. I played quarterback. I learned a lot under Jalen Mills, Jamal Adams and Dwayne Thomas. They taught me a whole lot about playing nickel and safety.”
Lewis almost exclusively served as quarterback at the prep level, but his high school experience isn’t all on the offensive side of the ball. He played some spot duty at cornerback, guarding the opponent’s best receiver against good competition.
“Best athlete on best athlete,” Lewis smiled.