A year later, Pitt’s Lewis hasn’t slowed down

Mark Ingram of Alabama won the Heisman Trophy a year ago, but
he’s not the leading returning rusher in the nation. Pittsburgh’s
Dion Lewis is.

The same Lewis who, at this time a year ago, was competing to be
Pitt’s starting tailback. He won the job by running for 129 yards
and two touchdowns against Youngstown State in the opener, and he
kept on running: 190 yards at Buffalo, 158 against Connecticut, 180
at Rutgers, 152 against Notre Dame, 155 at West Virginia, 194
against Cincinnati, 159 against North Carolina State.

In a matter of weeks, Lewis went from being a virtual unknown
whose 5-foot-8 size scared away every BCS school except for Pitt to
being a modern day version of Tony Dorsett. Dorsett’s own
assessment of Lewis’ 1,799-yard freshman season: ”Wow.”

Only Dorsett ran for more yards in a season at Pitt than Lewis
did, and that was during his 1976 Heisman Trophy season in which he
gained 2,150 yards. No doubt Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is thankful
he watched that highlight reel of Lewis’ long runs at Blair Academy
in New Jersey that nearly every other Division I coach managed to
overlook, despite Lewis’ 14.1 yards per carry average during his
final season.

”Dion, man, he was a steal,” Pitt tackle Jason Pinkston
said.

Now that the 19-year-old Lewis is beginning his second college
season, with three new offensive linemen in front of him and a new
quarterback, Tino Sunseri, handing him the ball, he keeps being
asked what makes him run.

Lewis himself offers a hint of an answer, mentioning he’s still
the same athlete who had only a couple of major college offers.

”I knew I was talented, I knew I could play and make things
happen,” Lewis said. ”The type of season I had, I didn’t expect
that much (yardage) but I knew I could go out there and be
productive.”

Lewis initially showed Pitt’s coaches his ability to power
through potential tacklers during spring practice in 2009. He
enrolled in Pitt nine months before his first college game, and the
extra weeks of practices and workouts proved beneficial.

”Dion Lewis is in the mix for 30 carries (a game during the
season), in my mind,” Wannstedt said that spring.

Wannstedt’s early assessment proved to be remarkably accurate.
Lewis averaged 27.1 carries per game as Pitt went 10-3, surpassing
Dorsett’s freshman record of 1,686 yards rushing. Lewis’ 47 carries
against Cincinnati were a school record, and he was an AP second
team All-American.

”Last year, what I did? That’s last year,” Lewis said as the
No. 15 Panthers prepared for Thursday’s opener at Utah. ”That
doesn’t mean anything. It’s what I do this year, and that’s my
focus. I’m trying to help my team win, put last year behind me and
keep moving forward.”

That is what Lewis does best, move forward.

”I expect, if not the same thing as last year, even better,”
Pitt wide receiver Jon Baldwin said. ”He worked so hard in the
offseason. He’s so powerful, you can put nine men in the box
against him and he still can break for a 65-yard run. He’s nearly
impossible to stop.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham compares Lewis to Oregon State star
Jacquizz Rodgers, a third-team All-American while rushing for 1,440
yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The 5-7 Rodgers, like Lewis,
was considered to be undersized coming out of high school.

”He (Lewis) is quick, fast, not great size but he is the same
type of back that Jacquizz is,” Whittingham said. ”He has great
vision and balance. He is a powerful runner in regards to his
size.”

The challenge this season is that opposing defensive
coordinators have had an entire offseason, not just a hurried week
of pregame preparation, to design schemes to control Lewis. With
the unproven Sunseri at quarterback, opponents know that Pitt will
lean heavily on Lewis during the early part of the season.

Not that Wannstedt would have it any other way.

Being able to recruit running backs like Lewis is one reason why
Wannstedt stays with a pro-style offense that often includes a
blocking fullback, Henry Hynoski. The last three seasons, Lewis and
LeSean McCoy combined to rush for 4,615 yards; McCoy gained 1,488
yards as a sophomore and 1,328 as a freshman before going to the
NFL.

”I think we’ll be even better this year,” Hynoski said. ”That
might be hard to believe for some people because we did so well
last year. But I think we’ll have an even bigger year. We’re primed
for it.”