Next in Line

Senior free safety Kendrick Lewis can't keep quiet these days. As a veteran locker room presence, the New Orleans, La. native has seen enough losing seasons to allow Ole Miss to take a step back. Read about it inside.

Ask any coach in the college football and most will give you a similar answer.

It takes a variety of factors when concocting a winning formula. While talent and depth certainly play important roles, a little luck and some quality leadership are of equal significance for consistent victories on football Saturdays.

When Ole Miss reeled off six-straight wins to end 2008, the team was relatively healthy. Better yet, a strong senior class laced with leadership helped stem the tide when breaks didn't fall the Rebels' way early in the season.

Early losses to Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and South Carolina were virtually wiped away with a 47-34 win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. But if not for the seniors, that gratifying day may have never arrived.

"One of the things that played a major role (in the team's success last season) was our senior leadership," senior free safety Kendrick Lewis said. "The year we went 0-8, there were a lot of guys going their own way. Our seniors stepped up this past year. They took control of the team. They showed the younger guys the way and what it takes to win. Everyone bought into Coach Nutt and what his staff had to offer."

Veterans such as Peria Jerry, Michael Oher, Jason Cook and Jamarca Sanford led the charge. Losing seasons were to be a thing of the past under their watch.

And once the winning started, the outside pundits began to take notice. The minute the season ended, folks were already calling for a potential top-10 team in 2009.

Lewis isn't fooled, however. As a member of this year's crop of seniors, the wide receiver turned defensive back is dead set on keeping the team focused on what lies ahead.

"I took a lot of notes from the guys in previous years," Lewis said. "Those guys were tremendous leaders. I saw where their leadership got us and took it upon myself to not let that go to waste. We can't take a step back. I want to build this team and keep it rolling."

For Lewis, preseason hype means little to the grand scheme. It's to be expected from the New Orleans, La. native, as his career has been filled with clearing obstacles.

During his freshman season in 2006, he appeared in six games, but finished with a mere five receptions and 31 yards as a reserve wideout. In his first season on defense as a sophomore, he played in all 12 games, with seven starts.

But the transition proved difficult, as Lewis had yet to grasp the physical demand of his new position.

"My tackling was very poor my sophomore year," he said. "That was a challenge I put upon myself (last season). I wanted to get better in that aspect of my game. I worked real hard at it and I was able to accomplish some good things."

That may be putting it mildly.

As a junior, Lewis led the team and ranked 14th in the conference in tackles (85). He also topped the squad in interceptions (4) and tied for the team lead in pass break-ups (6). Further, he notched 2.5 tackles for loss, with one sack, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

"I think I became a more physical player against Memphis," Lewis said. "That was one of the things I had to work on from my sophomore year to my junior year.

"As a team, I can honestly say our season turned around after Arkansas week. You saw the team come together in a tough game and a tough environment. We came together and pulled off a big win."

Now Lewis looks to lead the Rebels to many more big wins in his final year.

But it won't be easy, as Ole Miss isn't afforded the luxury of surprise this season. Being the hunted comes with the territory when you finish 9-4 overall and second in the SEC West a year ago.

"I like being the underdog, but it's a great honor to be mentioned with Florida, LSU and Alabama," said Lewis. "It's a great feeling. I wouldn't take it away for anything. We've worked too hard to get here. We have to build on it.

"We need to be unsatisfied. Everyone knows us. We have to stay humble. We know that we have a bullseye on our chest. We're going to get the publicity, but we can't buy into it. We have to keep doing the things we do to be successful and continue to work hard."

And that's the point Lewis will try to hammer home when fall practices begin Monday.

"We try to just stay humble and stay hungry," he said. "Me being a leader of this team, I try to tell the guys to not buy into the hype. We were ranked at the bottom of the map just a year ago. We won no games in the SEC the year before. I try to tell the guys to keep working hard, because it's going to be even harder this season.

"We're not a team who is going to sneak up on you."


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