November 12, 2008

Lewis finally comfortable on defense

Kendrick Lewis was asked Tuesday afternoon if he missed offense, if he longed for the days when he out-raced smaller cornerbacks and hauled in touchdown passes.

Ole Miss' junior free safety from New Orleans didn't even take a nanosecond to think about the question.

"No," Lewis said. "I love it on D."

It wasn't always that way. Lewis played in six games as a wide receiver in 2006, catching five passes for 31 yards. He moved to defense last season, playing in all 12 games _ starting seven _ and recording 57 tackles and a quarterback sack. It was the tackles that Lewis didn't make that got his new coaches' attention.

"He's just gotten better fundamentally because he's worked at it," Ole Miss safeties coach Kim Dameron said. "Specifically, last year, his feet were too close together so he couldn't adjust on a move and that's what tackling is. You have to tackle people with your feet before you can tackle them with your arms. Now, he has put himself in position where he plays with a good base and he knows also where if he's going to miss, where he's going to miss to and where his help is coming from."

Nine games into his second full season as a defender, Lewis is beginning to play like an All-Southeastern Conference-caliber player. He shares the team lead in tackles with strong safety Jamarca Sanford. Both players have 66 stops. Lewis also has three interceptions, four pass break-ups and a fumble recovery, helping to put Ole Miss (5-4) in bowl contention going into Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Louisiana-Monroe (3-7) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

"On my first year on defense, I felt I missed a lot of tackles and it was a hard adjustment," Lewis said. "But I came to practice every day. I worked hard. It was something I had to work on because I wanted to be better. I wanted to be the best. I worked at it and worked at it and now I'm successful. I'm not at the highest peak yet but I'm going to keep working to get there.

"In high school, it was easy. I was bigger than everybody. But in college, I was mostly an offensive player. You have to be physical. You have to wrap up. You have to get your head across. You have to run your feet on the point of contact. Those were the little simple things that I had to learn that I wasn't doing. Every time I went to tackle, my feet went dead. Those were some pointers I had to work on."

A lot of Lewis' advice came from Sanford, who has solidified his reputation as a tackling machine this season.

"He's a great athlete and he's a player," Sanford said. "He's a competitor. He's got great ball skills. We've been working on (tackling). I see him work on it all the time at practice and it was just a matter of time before he took it over to the game and now this year, he's doing a lot of tackling and he's a great tackler."

Lewis credits the mental transformation he made back in the spring as well. Lewis said Tuesday he had to realize that he had to develop an every-play mindset on defense as well as a physical mentality. Once that happened, he finally got comfortable.

"I felt like this was where I should be and this was what was going to get me to where I want to be," Lewis said.

Ironically, Lewis has served as a bit of mentor this season to two more players who have made the journey from offense to defense. Due to a complete lack of depth at cornerback in the spring, Ole Miss moved Jeremy McGee from running back and Marshay Green from wide receiver. Green has had an up and down season and McGee has struggled. Both players factor into the Rebels' future plans at the position.

"Jeremy is my roommate and Marshay lives next door to me and I keep telling them, 'Keep working and it's going to click over because you're an athlete. You're a baller and you're going to adjust to the situation. There are just simple things you're going to have to work on and you'll be good,'" Lewis said.

Entering Saturday's game, Ole Miss is fourth in the conference and 18th in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 106.9 yards per game. The Rebels' pass defense, however, has been an Achilles heel. Ole Miss is last in the league and No. 95 in the country in that category, allowing 243.7 yards per game through the air. In a win over Auburn on Nov. 1, however, Lewis was one of three Ole Miss players to intercept passes to preserve a 17-7 victory. Lewis believes that game was a turning point for the Rebels' secondary and another brick in the wall of what he believes is an emerging defensive force.

"I take it personally but if they put it in the air, I'll take it," Lewis said. "That's how I feel about it. Come try us and not to be cocky or anything, but I love to compete. I love a person who wants to put it in the air because I feel like once it's in the air, it's mine.

"You can see how we're binding together and improving as the season goes on and how we're getting better as a whole unit."

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