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Football: Cajuns QB Lewis 'not afraid to make mistakes' any longer

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 25, 2019

A year ago, the coating around him was purely protective.

Levi Lewis was coming of age, still figuring out who he was, what kind of quarterback he wanted to – and could – be.

He was a sophomore backup, playing every fourth series for UL behind then-senior starter Andre Nunez.

His words were ones of confidence, though not necessarily always authority.

His arm was still learning to find its mark with zip, his feet still a bit too happy at times, his football mind sharp but not yet sage with experience.

Now here it is near the end of his junior season, and the holiday gift for the Ragin’ Cajuns is a starter who has matured into a man – the man – as UL prepares to play MAC-champion Miami (Ohio) at the Jan. 6 LendingTree Bowl in Mobile.

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UL junior quarterback Levi Lewis looks downfield during a win over Texas State earlier this season.Buy Photo

UL junior quarterback Levi Lewis looks downfield during a win over Texas State earlier this season. (Photo: Michael O. Curley, Special to The Advertiser)

“He approaches the game different,” UL coach Billy Napier said in comparing the Lewis he inherited to the one he has now.

Teammates can tell.

“He’s not afraid to make mistakes, and I feel like last year he was,” said senior receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, Lewis’ top target with 818 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 53 catches. “He wanted everything to be perfect.”

“He’s been being more decisive (now). He knows what he needs to do,” added Kevin Dotson, UL senior first team All-American offensive guard. “Coach is telling him what to do, and he makes sure it happens.”

Dotson sees someone who makes fewer negative plays.

He sees sometime who knows when to throw it away, when to try to make something happen.

 

He sees, as does senior receiver Bam Jackson, someone who much more often than not makes the right call.

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“He’s been lights out. He isn’t hesitant no more,” said Jackson, who has played with Lewis for three seasons and played against him during their high school days in the Baton Rouge area. “When he sees something and he likes it, he’s gonna go for it.

“That’s something I can appreciate, and it’s something that the whole team appreciates, because we all know the type of football player Levi Lewis is.

“The dude’s a winner. He’s a baller. … The dude’s legit,” Jackson added. “So when you get a chance to see him come out of his shell and be comfortable and do his thing for real, that’s exciting to watch.”

Teammates able to soak it in from afar marvel over Lewis’ knack for escape, and how when it seems as if a play should be done he – with increasing frequency – instead makes something of it.

“When I see that man with the ball, the first thing I think of is Houdini,” senior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux said, “You think you’ve got him, you don’t.

“He can just extend and make plays with his feet, and that’s something I love about Levi. … When Levi sees an opportunity to run the ball, he does that and he makes things happen.”

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DIALING IN THE ARM

Yet Lewis also has made the most of an arm some have questioned since his arrival at UL.

A product of Scotlandville Magnet High, where he won the 2016 Warrick Dunn Award as the top Baton  Rouge player  who also exhibits “intangibles like character, selflessness, and sportsmanship,” Lewis led his 14-1 team to its first state championship in nearly 50 years when he was a senior.

But, small in stature at a listed 5-foot-10, it took him a while to stand out as a freshman at UL.

Eventually he did, though, and as original starter Jordan Davis struggled, and Nunez was benched following a concussion, then-Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth turned his keys over to the kid late in the season.

Lewis didn’t seem to mind burning his redshirt, as he declared he didn’t intend to spend more than four years at UL anyway.

The lefty appeared in four games, starting three, including a debut win at South Alabama in which his 110 passing yards included a 54-yarder to then-receiver, now-senior-cornerback Michael Jacquet III for one of his two touchdown throws on the night.

He had his moments late that season, but Lewis looked more like the freshman he was than the senior he wanted to be.

Certain throws were low the ground. His ankle acted up. His voice had not been found yet.

UL sputtered in the end, finishing 5-7 and prompting the Cajuns to hire Napier as the successor to the man who signed Lewis, Hudspeth.

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Napier didn’t know what he had on his hands at that point, and Nunez wound up beating out Lewis over the spring, summer and in preseason camp.

But Lewis didn’t need nearly that long to make UL’s 2019 team his own, and now he’s behind the wheel of a 10-3 program ranked eighth nationally in total offense when bowl season began, trailing only LSU, Oklahoma, Clemson, Central Florida, Ohio State, Washington State and Alabama.

The Cajuns – bolstered by a backfield featuring combined 2,700-plus-yard runners Elijah Mitchell, Raymond Calais Jr. and Trey Ragas – are averaging 501.3 yards per game.

They have a school-record number of wins.

And they have an overlooked quarterback whose 215.7 passing yards per game ranked – when bowl season opened – fourth in the Sun Belt Conference behind Troy’s Kaleb Barker, Arkansas State’s Layne Hatcher and UL Monroe’s Caleb Evans.

Barker has thrown for more total yards, 3,628, than Lewis’ 2,804 on 224-of-252 (63.64 percent), and more touchdowns, 30, than Lewis’ 24.

Hatcher has a better pass efficiency rating.

Dual-threat Evans has run for more yards, 794, than Lewis’ 133.

But Lewis’ four interceptions are fewer than any of the other Top 10 per-game passers in the Sun Belt, and – unlike both Barker and Evans – he has his team in a bowl.

Yet when this year’s All-Sun Belt Team was selected – and Barker found himself on the first team, Georgia State’s Dan Ellington on the second and Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas on the third – Lewis did not even receive honorable mention.

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Which is not to say he does not have the respect of those closest around him.   

“He’s a great quarterback, a great leader. He’s a very even-keeled guy. Never gets too high, never gets too low,” senior left tackle Rico Robinson said. “He always tells us (the same) even in any situation, whether we’re up big or down or it’s a tight-knit situation.

“He always tells us to stay focused on what we need to do, or reads and everything else.

“He gets on us. He also compliments us. He coaches us up,” Robinson added. “He loves us very much, and he wants us to do our best for him – and we do the same for him.”

'THE GUY JUST WINS, MAN'

 As the 2019 season unfolded, Napier’s confidence in Lewis became more and more apparent.

“The guy just wins, man. He’s gets it, you know?” the Cajuns coach said after an early November win over Texas State.

Two outings later, Lewis threw for a then-career-high 296 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Coastal Carolina.

“Nobody works like that kid does,” Napier said then. “I think he’s a product of his work. It’s that simple.

“You know, the guy, he just shows up, and he’s looking for any and every way to improve. It really means a lot to him, to do his job for the team.

“And I think any time we maybe don’t have success, or we have to punt the ball, or we don’t get touchdowns in the red zone,” Napier added, “he looks in the mirror first, and certainly comes back and attacks it at the next opportunity.”

When the Sun Belt West-champion Cajuns came back from their second straight SBC title-game loss at No. 20 Appalachian State, Lewis – who threw for a career-high 354 yards and four TDs in the title game – was named the team’s only non-senior permanent captain, standing alongside Dotson, offensive tackle Robert Hunt, Boudreaux and safety Deuce Wallace.

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“The guy’s been winning football games for a long time, as a high school player and certainly as a player here,” Napier said.

“He does a great job of setting an example of how to prepare, how to practice, the intensity, the urgency, the discipline that we would want from every individual player, and that’s what I respect about him the most.”

Those, though, are traits Lewis – tagged as a student of the game long before this season – had even before Napier’s arrival at UL.

What’s changed since is his decisiveness, and an ability – even as someone not shy to share the fact he takes time out of his day to meditate – to make a call in less than a blink.

“Each and every week … my preparation has gotten better,” Lewis said earlier this month.

“What I’ve seen previous weeks, I’m seeing the same scenario coming into the next game. … It’s a good feeling when things like that happen around this time of year.”

As a result, Lewis said, “you’re playing fast, you’re just playing at a high level and … you’re having confidence in what you see.”

From knowing personnel to understanding matchups, Lewis is better at all of it.

He can tell man eyes from zone eyes. He realizes who is prone to tipping off coverages. He knows where he is going with the ball long before he receives it from center Shane Vallot.

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Good times, indeed.

“Having play recognition – it helps out a lot,” Lewis said.

The byproduct: Lewis enjoyed a 10-game midseason stretch in which he had just one interception.

His first two came in UL’s first two games this year. His fourth did not come until the championship game, when he forced one over the middle trying to play catchup and gave up a costly pick-six.   

In between, Lewis displayed an uncanny ability for knowing what to do with the ball – and what not to do with it.

“The way that teams have played us at times,” Napier said, meaning loading the box to take away the run, “he’s had to throw it more often and certainly he’s done a really good job with that.

“We ask him to make lots of decisions, and does a great job preparing. He’s a good in-game decision-maker relative to the risk. He knows when he should take a chance and when he shouldn’t.”

 The coating, in other words, is gone. The shell has cracked from the inside out. The kid is all grown up.

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