Two seasons ago, Free Safety Kendrick Lewis, in the infancy of his career move from wideout to the Rebel secondary, was the brunt of some ridicule about his lack of tackling skills/technique/results.
Last year, after taking his lumps and working hard to refine his craft, Lewis became one of the surest tacklers on the Ole Miss defense and the naysayers, for all intents and purposes, went away.
Now, as his senior season rapidly approaches, nobody on the team is more respected by his teammates or admired by the fans than Lewis.
The proof is in the pudding.
Sunday night, Lewis was named one of seven permanent team captains for the 2009 season.
"It's a great honor for me," said Captain Lewis. "I will do everything in my power to lead my teammates on and off the field. I take the added responsibility seriously.
"As soon as the Cotton Bowl was over, and my senior season started, I took it upon myself, as did all the seniors, to dedicate myself to this team and leading this team. I will continue that until the final whistle blows this year."
You don't get named a captain for just talking a good game. You have perform as well. Lewis has done that.
"Kendrick has a complete game now," said Coach Houston Nutt. "When we got here, he was good in pass coverage but needed work against the run. He worked hard to improve his tackling techniques and learn about leverage and all the fundamentals of being a good tackler in the open field. Now, he's an all-around player who is confident in his ability and he's taken on the role of leading. We couldn't ask for much more from Kendrick."
Lewis used to squirm a little under the scrutiny of a media barrage. Now, he's calm, cool and calculating. No reporter is going to set a trap he can't see coming.
Monday, Lewis was asked how important it is for Ole Miss to "dominate" Memphis by a Bluff City TV reporter. He didn't give any bulletin board material to the Tigers.
"We are not looking at that game that way. We want everyone to know there is a reason we are ranked in the preseason as highly as we are, but we are not taking anyone lightly or thinking we can roll out there with that ranking and the other team will lay down for us," Lewis said. "It doesn't work that way. We respect Memphis and will prepare for them as if they were number one in the nation. We want to execute our gameplan and come away with a win. That's our goal."
That type of savvy with the media is indicative of the measured way he plays the game. Lewis will gamble, but not risk. He will strike and attack, but only when the odds are in his favor. Experience have taught him those things.
"I understand now when to go for a big play and when to play it safe," he explained. "I know what every player on defense is supposed to be doing and where he is supposed to be and I react accordingly. It took a lot of hard work to get to this point after switching over from offense, but I have confidence now in my instincts and how I react to every situation."
Lewis knows the strength of Memphis' team is its wide receivers - tall and athletic.
"When you are giving up four or five inches in height, you have to be physical and get your hands on those guys, hoping you can knock them off their routes," Kendrick assessed. "If you get in a jump ball situation with those guys, you are usually going to lose, so you compete to get them out of position and out of their comfort zone before the throw and before they can get to their spot.
"Based on last year, we know they are going to throw some quick throws and screens and short routes. We just have to be on top of them quickly and do out jobs."
The Tigers, it is being said by some, have a "nothing to lose" mentality against a highly-ranked opponent in the Rebels.
The Rebels were a "nothing to lose" team a year ago. Lewis understands the danger in facing those kinds of teams, having experienced that himself last year.
"Psychologically, you have to understand that this is college football and anyone can beat anyone on a given day, so you have to compete at your highest level and do the best you can on every snap. Memphis will be motivated and intense and to win we will have to match that intensity and motivation," Kendrick said.
As a leader of the secondary, Lewis has to look after his flock, including the backups to him and starting Strong Safety Johnny Brown.
"I feel real comfortable with Fon (Ingram) and Derrick (Herman). Fon has played a lot of football and Derrick is a physical young player who can run. They can do the job and we have faith in them," Lewis added.
Like everyone, Lewis is ready to quit talking and tee the ball up.
"Memphis will be a great test for us to start the 2009 season. Fortunately, Memphis is in our back yard and we will have a lot of our fans there. We feel like it is a neutral site," he closed. "We are going to attack the situation and see where that takes us."
Captain Kendrick Lewis
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