Right from the start, the Southern University football coaching staff missed on freshman defensive end Jordan Lewis. They didn’t know, by putting him at linebacker, what they had hiding in plain sight.
Two weeks into the season, Lewis’ cover was blown.
“At one time he was our secret weapon,” defensive line coach Skyler Jones said. “Now everybody knows about him.”
A secret like Lewis can’t be kept a secret for long. In his first game as an undersized end, he produced a sack and has had eight more since. His nine quarterback takedowns leads the SWAC and is tied for seventh national among FCS teams.
Assuredly Grambling has special adjustments ready for when Lewis enters the game when the teams meet in the 45th annual Bayou Classic Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 4 p.m.
Built more like a college outside linebacker at 6-feet-3 and 195 pounds, Lewis has prospered in the return to his natural position. That’s where he played at Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, Fla. He’s not in the starting lineup, but when he enters the field, the Jaguar pass rush is immediately juiced up.
“He played defensive end in high school, so the transition wasn’t hard for him,” Jones said. “The main thing was getting him to catch up on everything we do up front, the twist games, the pressures we call.
“The thing that stands out is his speed. His first step get-off is second to none. When we use him on passing down opportunities, he’s going to have an opportunity to get after the quarterback. We like our chances with him in the game.”
Lewis was not made available for interviews for this story. Southern’s policy does not permit media access to quarterbacks, freshmen and first-year transfers.
When asked to choose a particularly memorable play, Jones named three:
• Against Texas Southern he went inside on a stunt and “slammed” a much bigger offensive guard.
• Lewis came in too low against Jackson State quarterback Jarrad Hayes, who got outside and ran for the sidelines but was caught from behind by Lewis.
• Later in the same game, Lewis sacked backup quarterback Derrick Ponder, stripped the ball, recovered and brought it back 36 yards for the game’s final score.
“You say to yourself, ‘How’d he do that?’” Jones said of catching a faster player from behind. “He does a lot of amazing things.”
Lewis has made believers of his teammates, especially the upperclassmen who often ride herd on rookies with varying types of initiations and hazing.
“He’s a playmaker,” senior cornerback Demerio Houston said. “Coach lines him up, tells him what to do and he has a hunger to play the game, hunger to make plays. That’s what he’s doing. They ask him to get pressure on the quarterback and he’s come into some great stats. He’s going to have a great career here. He’s got natural ability and instincts.”
Half of his 18 tackles have been sacks and he has two quarterback hurries and a blocked kick. His stat line would be fatter if he played more but Jones says the staff is taking their time to let him develop in areas other than rushing the passer.
“He’ll tell you he’s small but he can take on a lot,” Jones said, smiling. “He’ll say, ‘I’m built different.’ He’s a tough kid. He’s not afraid to put his face in there, not afraid to use his hands. We try not to put him in those situations but if need be, he can take on blocks and play the run. I’m confident in him playing the run.”
Center Jaylon Brinson said he watches Lewis closely in practice and off the field and the first-year players is doing all the right things.
“He’s a hard worker,” Brinson said. “Coach Odums took him under his wing and showed him some things. He took it through the roof. He’s not a big talker. He keeps to himself, but he’s always in the mix.”
Jones said Lewis is growing every day, if not in size, then experience and understanding. It won’t be long before he’s an every-down player.
“We use him situationally, but we can play him on first or second down if we need to,” Jones said. “As he gains more weight, we’ll put more on his plate. We have a good grasp of how we want to use him and he understands when we need to use him in certain situations.
“Jordan is a good kid. We don’t have any issues with him. He goes to study hall, goes to class. Being from Florida, he doesn’t have any family out here. He’s bought in to what we’re doing as a unit. The defensive line is close knit. They all hang out with each other. It’s an older group, guys that have been in college three or four years. They help him out.”