Notice how the freshman wide receiver quickly corrected both his and Mississippi State's priorities there. That the Bulldogs are heading to the Music City Bowl to win their matchup with Wake Forest, and then enjoy themselves. Yet honestly, it is all the same thing to Lewis & Company. Getting back to another bowl game is a win, and making this sort of thing an annual MSU event is fun.
Besides, for the first week of bowl camp Coach Dan Mullen has let his third State squad have good times in the practice process. Up to now it has been all about the Bulldogs themselves, most obviously so during their Friday evening scrimmage. With most of the roster turned loose to have at each other in the stadium—and, perhaps also invigorated by good vibrations still felt from their latest Egg Bowl victory three weeks earlier—a pretty good time was had by all.
"It was a lot of fun out there, just running around," Lewis said. "I told the guys let's just go out there and have fun, man." The second-year frosh certainly had his share. He caught an unofficial five passes for 66 yards and scored a touchdown on a five-yard flip from true freshman quarterback Dak Prescott.
But that wasn't the most impressive Lewis performance on the evening. No, that came on a couple of series later when on second down from the 30-yard line Prescott found Lewis over the middle, open and ready. The catch was more than enough for a first down but Prescott charged ahead for some more. And then more despite being swarmed by tacklers. And then even more, right down to the two-yard line.
Observers expressed surprise later how the 5-9, 185-pound (maybe) receiver dragged several bigger, stronger, and just plain heavier defenders for most of a dozen yards. None believed he could do that, and know what? "I didn't either!" Lewis laughed.
"I was planning on somebody tackling me! But didn't nobody go for the legs so I just kept pumping my feet, and my teammates were helping move the pile, so eventually I went down there." Close enough where Prescott could find fellow redshirting frosh TE Rufus Warren for the next touchdown.
A trend could be easily spotted in those scoring plays, along with review of other scrimmage action: it was a night for the younger Bulldogs to show their stuff. Just like the past week of practices had been, featuring as they did extended periods of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 competition in both drills and full-field play situations. The difference those days was a heavier proportion of plays assigned to starters and backups; the scrimmage had a definite youth theme.
Just as it was for Lewis during December 2010 scrimmaging in advance of the Gator Bowl. If anything the now-veteran found himself in an odd position of ‘advising' this year's true freshmen along with reserves who saw little if any '11 action. Now Lewis can attest to just how much help a bowl camp, and game, is in getting the next season off to a stronger start.
Particularly on the younger end of the '12 roster, he agreed. "It helps all the young players' development, to figure out our weaknesses and strengths and just try to master that."
It's still a little too early to call Lewis a master of his own trades. Filling a rotation receiver role he caught seven balls for 143 yards, though 80 of that came on a single grab-and-go at Memphis on opening night for Lewis' lone receiving touchdown. That same night he also rushed for a score, first of his 11 total carries for 86 yards as a rookie runner.
As the year went on this splendid young athlete earned his shots at kickoff and punt return, a total of 21 such chances in fact. Though, he also frustrated his coaches by taking his own ways on kickoffs and missing some obvious opportunities for huge returns, even a score or two. It meant a step back on that depth chart by November.
But none are giving up on a guy with his sort of return-talents. Least of all Lewis himself. For now, for the bowl, "I mean, I'm just sitting back watching Banks and Bump so I can learn from them. I feel more comfortable with it now."
Something else Lewis is comfortable with, not to mention confident about, is getting the ball delivered directly while in the backfield. Playing the ‘wild' back in other words. Nothing huge came of his handful of '11 chances to run wild, but practices since his arrival from Tylertown have made abundantly clear how Lewis led his high school team to the state championship at quarterback.
"I mean, I'm kind of familiar with that position!" he grins. "I like the ball in my hand, but I'm going to sit back and watch Bump on that, and whenever they call me to come in I'm going to step in." Junior wideout Chad Bumphis is the most probably first ‘wild' choice on this roster, in fact. But it's equally tempting to leave the older hand out there running routes and let the kid do his thing. Especially now that State has only one healthy varsity quarterback available.
That one, senior Chris Relf, will finish his Bulldog career on December 30. His injured alternate, Tyler Russell, goes into 2012 the presumptive starter. And now there is promised competition after the show Prescott put on in the scrimmage. He completed an unofficial 36 of 49 passes for 418 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
Lewis, on the receiving end of five of those throws and the score, was delighted by the newest quarterback's performance. "Oh, Dak, he's a good baller. And I was telling him let's just go out and have fun. He got a lot of reps in so I know he was tired, most of the time he was playing. But I was like, man, that's part of the game, let's have fun."
So there seems no need to take a promising receiver and rush him into any spring quarterback competition. Besides, Lewis admits, his head coach is correct about one key fact: Lewis has a lot to learn about being a receiver still. No surprise of course, seeing how did more running and throwing than catching in high school. Or that at wideout he could basically create his own route against overmatched defenders.
It doesn't work that way any more. The natural is having to add a lot of unnatural skills to his raw ability if SEC success is to come.
"It really was hard when I first got here," Lewis said. "But now I'm getting it down-pat, kind of learning how to block on the perimeter and run my routes, and get all the depth on my routes." Notice he mentioned blocking first, route-running second. That is intentional, because in Mullen's spread system receivers will do a lot more blocking out on the edge or downfield than catching passes.
So guess what Lewis was reminding even-younger receivers like Joe Morrow and Devin Fosselman about this past week? Right. Sacrifice the stats, and the body, and work within the gameplan.
"I mean, that's all part of the game. If you feel you're in position to block somebody, block them and help your partner score a touchdown. You've got to block and you've got to get the depth on your route to help the timing with the quarterback." And then, as all works out rightly, catch the ball and make something extra happen.
Much like this Music City Bowl appearance is another Mississippi State opportunity to make something extra happen for the 2011 season. Maybe the 6-6 regular schedule record wasn't what the Bulldogs had hoped for, much less their coach. Still the Dogs did what they had to for bowl status, and a winning record is within reach with all that would imply for off-season attitudes and spring momentum.
So, time to set the fun aside and get to work with four days of game-prep practicing on campus before their Christmas break. And then Lewis and squad report to Nashville for the concluding act of 2011.
"I mean, we're just trying to go out there and play our best. To make the season a success."
Mississippi State began game practicing with a Saturday closed practice, first of four running through Tuesday.