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Football – UL quarterback Levi Lewis: ‘I’ve got to take charge and just play ball’

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Oct. 29, 2020

SAN MARCOS, Texas – The words are revealing.

UL quarterback Levi Lewis expects more – of himself, of the Ragin’ Cajuns offense.

“I personally feel like I haven’t played my best game,” Lewis said Wednesday night.

“You know, I know we all want to talk positive. But I want to take a look in the mirror and notice that I personally haven’t been playing my best, our best, game – playing our best ball.

“I take full responsibility for the offense and how it’s been going,” Lewis added, “and I’ve got to step it up. I’ve got to take charge and just play ball.”

A season ago, Lewis threw for 3,050 percent yards and 26 touchdowns with four interceptions and a 64.3 completion percentage over 14 games for the 11-3 Cajuns.

Heading into Saturday’s visit with Texas State (7 p.m., ESPNU) the fourth-year senior has thrown for 1,052 yards and seven TDs through five games for 4-1 UL. But he’s already been picked off four times and his completion percentage has fallen to 58.5 percent as per-game UL scoring has dropped from 37.9 last season to 27.2.

“We know what’s going on with the offense; we’ve been trying to fix those little things and move forward,” Lewis said. “But I do feel like we’re taking steps ahead.”

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Like a car wash

Cycling Cajun receivers like vehicles in a car wash – one after another after another, each unique – hasn’t helped.

Lewis lost last season’s top three pass catchers: X-receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, now on the Cleveland Browns practice roster; slot man Bam Jackson, also a 2019 senior; and injured Jamal Bell.

Like Bell, Cassius Allen had knee surgery and is out long-term. Brian Smith Jr. broke his hip. Calif Gossett, who does not yet have a catch this year, missed the season’s first three games following Achilles tendon surgery.

Three true-freshmen receivers – Dontae Fleming, who has seven grabs but injury issues of his own; Errol Rogers Jr., hurt during the preseason; and Kyren Lacy, UL’s No. 2 receiver this season with 11 catches for 199 yards – play regularly.

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Jalen Williams (11 receptions, 192 yards) moved from the X spot to the slot. Even leading receiver Peter LeBlanc (14 catches, 202), who has bounced between the X and Z, has been playing through injury. 

“That’s a big part of what we’re going through. Back before we started playing the season …  we had lots of scenarios at receiver,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why continuity is a big piece of the puzzle.

“We played last year and it was basically a handful of players that had been in our system two years and had had a ton of game experience.

“All the players that had experience on our team (this year) got hurt, and Jalen (Williams) made a position move; Pete (LeBlanc) made a position move,” Napier added. “Pete’s been in and out of the lineup. So, we’re just an inexperienced crew – and to get Calif (Gossett) back, who has experience, I think that’s been a positive for our team.”

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Lewis readily acknowledges that moving parts have contributed to sometimes shaky sailing.

“I’ve been adapting, just trying to know each guy I’m throwing to,” he said. “But I’m still trying to keep a level head knowing that something might be off, because I’m throwing to so many guys.

“Normally I throw to a certain amount of guys. But now it’s been all over the place, guys are in different spots. So I’d say I’ve been ‘adjusting.’

“And I feel like in the long run it’s good to know you can put guys in different spots, knowing that as a quarterback you’ve got to adapt to those guys, you’ve got to adapt to the system and what’s going on,” he added. “You can’t just be one-dimensional.”

Man on the run

To that point, the Cajuns also have allowed Lewis to use his feet more than last year.

He’s averaging 27.4 rushing yards per game this season, almost double his 13.93 from 2019. That’s boosted by a career-long 51-yard scramble in an Oct. 14 loss to Coastal Carolina – 32 yards lengthier than last year’s longest. He even flashed a Heisman pose after a touchdown run against the Chanticleers.

With No. 2 running back Trey Ragas’ per-game rushing average down to 47.60 this year from 63.29 last year and 84.4 in 2018, Lewis’ running has been key.

“What we’re seeing is that teams are giving up that,” Napier said with reference to Lewis’ designed runs. “You know, they’re playing us a little bit different.”

Which perhaps can be attributed to defenses selling out on Ragas or leading rusher Elijah Mitchell or No. 3 Chris Smith.

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With a young receiving corps, and running backs tied up, it’s become more and more helpful to have a quarterback who can dash, dart and improvise.

“We’ve got to use Levi’s feet. We’re to a point now where that’s got to be a part of our identity on offense,” Napier said. “I think growing up at receiver, growing up up front, we’re taking steps forward there.

“But I think Levi’s mobility and certainly his ability to run the ball in the read game, in the draw game, has got to be a part of who we are. It just gives us a little bit different dimension, whereas in the past we haven’t necessarily had to do that.”

It’s something Napier’s assistants apparently have had to nudge him into.

“I think our staff is doing a really nice job of encouraging that and recommending that,” Napier said, “and certainly (Lewis) does a nice job on those types of plays.”

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Spavital has taken notice

Texas State coach Jake Spavital has taken notice of Lewis, who with his two touchdown passes in last week’s 24-20 win over UAB in Birmingham moved out of a tie with Roy Henry and alone into third place on UL’s all-time leaders list with 41, trailing only Terrance Broadway (49) and ex-NFL quarterback Jake Delhomme (64).

“It’s very similar to what like (Arizona Cardinals coach) Kliff Kingsbury is using with Kyler Murray, on how you can utilize that skill set,” Spavital said. “But, at the same time, he’s doing a great job in the pocket. … He’s just more comfortable every single time he gets out there.”

“I think it comes with developing as a player,” said Cajuns tight end Pearse Migl, who had his first career touchdown catch against UAB. “He spends more time in film than anybody. He understands the game more than anybody.”

Lewis, who guided second-half touchdown drives of 78 and 86 yards in UL’s comeback win over the Blazers, readily attests to increased comfort during his third year in Napier’s system.

“With this type of experience at this level, with this many games under your belt, you kind of know what’s going to happen or what’s going on,” Lewis said.

“When you let things come to you and not force anything, that (more running opportunities) is what happens. I know I can use my feet, and I’ve got weapons around me.”

It’s all part of a process.

“Like Coach (says),” Lewis said of comparing 2020 to 2019, “ ‘You’ve got to keep your poise, understand that it’s a new team, it’s a new program.’ ”

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