RB Lewis fighting size stigma for spot in backfield


BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- At various times, Dion Lewis has been compared to Brian Westbrook, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. So why was he still on the board in the fifth round of the 2011 draft?

Blame the numbers. At the Scouting Combine, he was measured at 5-foot-6 and one half inches tall, an inch and one-half shorter than his listed height of 5-8. He then ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds, a half second slower than expected.

The number Lewis hoped would go up (his height) went down and the number he hoped would go down (his 40 time) went up. As a result, a running back projected by some draft analysts as a second round pick tumbled to the 149th selection overall.

Yeah, it was a little disappointing, Lewis said following Sundays rainy practice at the Eagles training camp, but I believe everything happens for a reason.

Lewis is now in the thick of the competition for a spot in the Eagles backfield. He got more touches than any other running back (11) in Thursdays preseason opener against Baltimore and made a favorable impression.

Two things jumped out, said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. One, the young man can run with the football and, two, he can block. Hell pick up a blitzer and protect the quarterback. He is still in the learning curve, but we like what weve seen so far.

Lewis missed several days of practice with a sore hamstring, but he is making up for lost time. In the 13-6 win over the Ravens, he rushed for 26 yards and turned a short pass into a 16-yard gain with some nifty running. He flashed the quickness that had the University of Pittsburgh touting him as a Heisman Trophy candidate this time last year.

I felt like I did all right once I got the jitters out, Lewis said. The game was a lot faster than college. I heard people say that and its true. But the more I play and the more reps I get, Ill get more comfortable.

On Thursday, Lewis will be getting his reps against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field where he starred for the Pitt Panthers the last two seasons. How many tickets will he need for his homecoming? Twenty? Thirty? More?

Just two, for my parents, he said.

Lewis is quiet and low-key. He is much different than LeSean McCoy, the other Pitt product who is the Eagles No. 1 back. McCoy is gregarious and cocky. He was that way even as a rookie. Lewis, by contrast, measures every word.

When McCoy left Pitt for the NFL in 2009, Lewis stepped in. As good as McCoy was, Lewis was even better. He rushed for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns, topping the Pitt freshman records set by the great Tony Dorsett in 1973.

Lewis was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, making him the first player to win both honors in the same season since Michael Vick in 1999. It was a stunning debut for a kid who got only one scholarship offer from a BCS school and that was the one from Pitt.

Now they are on the same team -- McCoy entrenched as the starter entering his third pro season and Lewis as the rookie trying to earn a job. The Eagles have a lot of backs with McCoy, ex-Dolphin Ronnie Brown, Eldra Buckley and rookies Lewis, Graig Cooper and Derrick Locke. That doesnt even count the fullbacks, Owen Schmitt and Stanley Havili, plus Chad Hall who can line up in the backfield if needed.

It is a crowded picture, but Lewis has the inside track among the rookies because of his versatility. He can be a change-of-pace back, a third down receiver and a kick returner. With the way the Eagles like to spread the field, it makes a shifty ball carrier like Lewis very effective.

The label on Lewis -- too small -- really isnt true. He is short but solidly built. He is thick through the legs and strong in the upper body. Physically, he resembles Brian Westbrook. Lewis is an inch or two shorter than Westbrook, but he has a similar frame. One pre-draft scouting report said Lewis had legs like fire hydrants on springs.

Lewis was a linebacker at Blair High School in New Jersey. He spent hours in the weight room at Pitt. He was bench pressing 360 pounds and squat lifting 500. He did most of his running between the tackles and coach Dave Wannstedt compared him to Emmitt Smith, who set the NFL rushing record in Dallas. Wannstedt was an assistant on the Dallas staff.

Dion is tough like Emmitt, Wannstedt told the Sporting News after Lewis freshman year. Emmitt would make a lot of guys miss after contact. Emmitt was the same Week 1 and Week 16. I think that Dion has those same type of qualities.

Lewis has heard the questions about his size forever. Thats why he had only one big-time college scholarship offer. Thats why he fell so far in the draft. It doesnt bother him anymore because he has consistently proven that in his case size really doesnt matter.

Ive been playing football since I was six-years-old, Lewis said. Ive always been short, but it never held me back. I know this is the NFL, but at the end of the day its still football. I love the game and I love to compete.

E-mail Ray Didinger at viewfromthehall@comcast.net

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