Penn State’s first pass of the season, from Christian Hackenberg and toward junior wide receiver Geno Lewis, came on the Nittany Lions’ second offensive play of the opener against Temple.
Lewis dropped it.
No matter — Hackenberg’s next four attempts, all on that possession, also went Lewis’ way. There were two completions, another drop and an incompletion, and Lewis was seldom seen the rest of that day — or, really, for the next month.
He had a single reception the following Saturday, against Buffalo, but then went three weeks without catching a ball. It was, he said Tuesday morning, “one of the toughest times of the year.”
Only recently have things been on the rise for Lewis, literally and otherwise. He has made leaping touchdown catches each of the last two weeks, the first a 27-yarder that put the Lions ahead to stay early in the fourth quarter of the 31-30 victory over Maryland, the second a six-yarder in the 39-0 rout of Illinois that represented his first career score in Beaver Stadium.
He has just nine catches this season, after 55 a year ago. But he appears to have the respect of head coach James Franklin.
“I'm really proud of Geno because he hasn't had as many opportunities this year as he's had in the past, and to be honest with you, I think he's handled it really, really well,” Franklin said during his news conference Tuesday. “Is he happy about it? No. But does he have a great attitude? Does he come to work every single day?”
The coach went on to say that one of the things he and his assistants emphasize to the skill players is that while they cannot control the number of touches they get, they can control what they do once they get them.
“You could make a heck of an argument he's made the most out of his opportunities,” Franklin said of Lewis, “especially in the low red zone with going up and catching the ball and high-pointing the ball and creating touchdowns off of fades and things like that.”
Franklin had said a week earlier that the big thing with Lewis is maintaining his consistency — “consistency in practice and … consistency in games.” Lewis, for his part, said he is doing the best he can.
“I’ve been through a lot of harder things in life than not playing football,” he said. “I know that you’re always going to go through adversity in life, and you have to find a way to keep everything positive. You can’t let it get to you. You have to keep working hard. That’s just how I was brought up and raised by my father (Rev. Eugene Sr.) and also my mother (Amy). No matter what, football’s always going to be there, and when you get your opportunities, just take advantage of it. That’s what I’ve tried to do this season.”
Geno was vague about the travails he has faced, saying he has “had family members pass away” and seen “a lot of things in life,” but he appears to have some perspective.
“There are a lot more things more important than just not getting the ball or not playing as much as I think I should be, or any of that,” he said again. “You can’t let things like that get to you.”
The Illinois game was something of a culmination for him — “one of the most exciting and happiest days of my life,” as he said — since his five previous career TDs had come elsewhere. There had been two in Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium in 2013, and another in the New Jersey Meadowlands, against Syracuse. Last year he caught a scoring pass in the opener against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, and also had one against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, in Yankee Stadium.
“I’ve always wanted one in Beaver Stadium,” he said. “It happened. I was grateful and happy that I finally got to get in the end zone there.”
He was born outside Philadelphia, in Norristown, and said he moved “all over the place” for a while. Finally, when he was in seventh grade, his family took up roots in Wilkes-Barre. There he played football at Wyoming Valley West, as well as basketball at Meyers High School.
His hoops roots run deep. His dad, known as “Junie” in his days at Abington High School, outside Philly, played at South Alabama and was a second-round pick of the Utah Jazz in the 1989 NBA Draft. One of Geno’s aunts, Debbie, also played basketball, at Pitt.
The younger Lewis played AAU ball throughout high school, and has found that his on-court skills come into play on jump-balls in football.
“It’s like going up and getting a rebound,” he said. “It’s like three guys standing around, and you’re timing the jump right. Really, I’ve been doing that since I was in middle school. … I have a nice little vertical and I’m a bigger kind of body (at 6-foot-1, 205), so I just feel like you have to be strong and use your strength to go up and get the ball — time it up right.”