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Alcorn State quarterback Noah Johnson ducks but can't escape Southern linebacker Jordan Lewis during their game Sept. 29 at A.W. Mumford Stadium.

In his first season, defensive end Jordan Lewis was one of Southern’s most impactful players on defense and earned Freshman of Year honors in the Southwest Athletic Conference.

It seems counterintuitive, then, that Lewis will be making his first start as a Jaguar when they line up for the season opener at McNeese State Saturday at 6 p.m.

Lewis attached 15 extra pounds to his 195-pound frame in the offseason and is ready to become an every-down player rather than a pass rush specialist. His league leading 12 sacks last season sped up the process for coach Dawson Odums to get him on the field as often as possible.

Lewis says he’s ready for prime time.

“It’s been good; I’m learning to be an every-down player,” Lewis said of his evolution. “I use my technique more. Playing against the run is the hardest part to get used to.

“I’ve put on a couple of pounds but I still work on my speed. This is the biggest and strongest I’ve been since I’ve been at Southern.”

Lewis will need that and more. Odums said his ultimate playing weight is 225 and that he’s bound for the next level if he continue to improve. But even at 210 pounds, he’s light for a defensive linemen and opponents are likely to test him by running right at him.

Odums said that doesn’t concern him because Lewis “is a football player” and can impact the game in many ways.

“He knows the defense, he’s much further along,” Odums said. “He’s explosive. He has one of the best first steps in college football. He’s always around the football. He’s one of those guys you look back in your recruiting class and say ‘We don’t know how we got him but we’re glad we got him.’ He’s a difference maker.”

Lewis had only 10 tackles that weren’t sacks and added four hurries, a fumble recovery, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick. The Jaguar staff likes his speed so much they use him on every special team except kickoff returns and field goals.

His teammates are certain he can handle his new role.

“Jordan is coming along,” safety Montavius Gaines said. “He’s an every-down guy. He’s developing and he’s ready to make that transition. He’s an athlete. He can be on the edge or go to the A gap. He can do it all. We’re trying to get him up to speed with the plays.”

Lewis will still be counted on to pressure quarterbacks and try to boost the defense’s turnover totals. He said he gets a good workout in practice to sharpen his skills and there is heavy emphasis on creating havoc.

“We work on forcing fumbles, stripping the ball from the running back and quarterbacks,” he said. “Reaching high up to knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. Working against our O-line has helped me develop more, teaching me things about being a college pass rusher.”

Said center Jaylon Brinson: “He has a gift for rushing the passer. It’s special to watch.”

One of Lewis main challenges is going to be avoiding injuries. Playing every down requires more stamina and he’s going to get hit more while trying to defense the running game. Southern enjoys great depth, especially on the defensive line. Even as a starter, he won’t have to play every snap in every game.

“Staying healthy is the key for him,” Odums said. “He hasn’t played a full college season as a starter so it will be an adjustment.”

Lewis’ eyes practically light up when he thinks about playing McNeese, which is expected to throw the ball often out of its spread offense after being a run-oriented team for years.

“Everybody is excited for the season,” he said. “I expect us to play disciplined and give effort, give all we’ve got. Playing against a spread is a chance to show my talent as an every-down player. I think we’re going to have a special year.”