Rebel senior Strong Safety Jamarca Sanford says he knew junior Free Safety Kendrick Lewis would be a good player as soon as Lewis switched over from offense two years ago.
"Kendrick is an athlete and a competitor. We were having to cover him as a wide receiver and I already knew he could play any skill position he put his mind to," said Sanford. "All he needed to do was get a defensive mentality and he would be set.
"He learns quickly - he actually helped me out in the learning process when the new coaches came in with a different defensive system, he's got great ball skills and, like I said, Kendrick is a competitor, which is the biggest thing. He struggled some last year with his tackling, but he's worked hard on getting that right and is a really good tackler now."
Lewis, who did not maintain his number one status in 2007 due to sporadic tackling, went to work in spring on that aspect of his game.
Still, sophomore Johnny Brown was ahead of Lewis on the post-spring depth chart at free ssafety and opened August practice ahead of Kendrick.
Lewis kept plugging away. . .
Brown was injured in August practice and missed some of preseason camp. That is when Lewis made his move. He moved into the top spot and has not given it up since.
"I actually felt my transition from offense to defense was completed back in spring. I kept working hard all summer because I want to be the best and when I got my opportunity when Johnny went down, I took advantage of it," Lewis stated. "I always felt I had the ball skills, but the tackling part was harder than I thought it would be."
Kendrick took tackling for granted when he first moved over to the defensive side of the ball because he had been successful on defense in high school.
"It was easy in high school because I was bigger than most high school backs and wideouts, but in college everyone is as good and big as you are and you have to tackle with good fundamentals," he explained. "You have to bring your feet, wrap up, head across the body and do it right or you aren't going to bring down the backs and wideouts we play against on this level."
Safeties Coach Kim Dameron started from scratch with Lewis in teaching him proper tackling.
"Kendrick was approaching runners with a narrow base and he'd quit moving his feet when he was getting in position to make a tackle," Dameron said. "We widened his base so he could adjust his body better on the run as ballcarriers would make their moves and we taught him to keep moving his feet through contact. It took some time, but he's become, for the most part, a reliable tackler. There are times when he slips back into his old ways, but he's becoming more consistent."
Lewis is now a believer in the feet and legs being the most important factor in proper tackling.
"If you let your feet go dead, you are going to get beat and not make solid contact. The feet have to keep moving, it's where you get your power and ability to adjust on the run," Lewis noted.
While the fundamentals of tackling had to be conquered by Lewis, there's also a different mindset on the defensive side of the ball he had to absorb and learn.
"You have to bring it every play on defense. I had to develop that mindset and defensive mentality," he continued. "If you take a play off on offense, you might be able to get away with it if the ball is going away from you. If you take a play off on defense, it's going to burn you and your team.
"Everyone has a job on every play and is important to the scheme working. If you don't carry out your assignment on every single play, the scheme won't work. It starts up front in the box with gap control and filters back to us in the secondary the way runners and receivers are spilled our way."
Conventional wisdom dictates the safeties should not be the leading tacklers if the defense is successful, but that theory is slowly changing. Lo and behold, Lewis and Sanford lead the squad with 66 tackles each. WLB Ashlee Palmer is next with 44 stops.
"With the offenses we face now, spreading things out and playing on the perimeter so much, the safety is usually the eighth man in the box and is the unblocked guy, so it's not surprising to me to see our safeties as the leading tacklers," Dameron stated.
Lewis likes that philosophy and the way the role of the safeties has evolved.
"Jamarca and I are in the middle of the action on just about every play and that's how we like it," Kendrick noted. "We are both competitors and want to be where the action is."
From Lewis's perspective, the Rebel defense has made, and continues to make, big strides.
"I think we get better every day. It took us some time to get the concepts of the defense down, but I think we get better every practice and every game," he said. "We have become a true unit now where everyone gets it and is doing their job."
The guys in the secondary, however, know the perception of the Ole Miss defense is to throw against it to be successful. Lewis doesn't bristle to that notion, he takes it as a challenge.
"I take it personally when I hear that, but that's a good thing. That thinking motivates us," he closed. "I don't want to sound cocky or anything, but our mindset is that we want offenses to challenge us through the air. We want to show everyone they are wrong about our secondary.
"I know how I feel about it. Throw it. You put it in the air and I'm going to go get it. It doesn't always work out that way, but you have to have that frame of mind. It's hard back there, but we wouldn't have it any other way. We love the challenge. I think we showed against Auburn, with three interceptions, that we aren't going to be a pushover. We are going to compete."
Kendrick Lewis -
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