Dion Lewis Short, Makes Big Plays

Freshman Dion Lewis is easy to find during a Pitt football practice this spring, since he's probably the shortest guy on the field, but he's also among the fastest and as a first-year player he's usually the last to leave because he has to collect all the elastic bands that the Panthers use for stretching exercises.

The Pittsburgh coaching staff certainly has noticed all the talents Dion Lewis has displayed so far through four spring practice sessions.

"(Lewis) has made some plays every day, and ... he'll be in the mix come this fall,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "It's very promising, and it tells you that he's much more mature than the average freshman.

"To come here early and be able to handle the academics, as well as come out here and compete on the football field ... he has responded extremely well so far. (But) we're very pleased with all our running backs right now.''

Pitt basically has to replace three starters in his offensive backfield, as tailbacks LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, as well as fullback Conredge Collins, have left for the NFL. All hope to be taken in April's draft. So, with a lot of carries, yardage and scoring gone from last season, there is an opportunity for someone -- or several players -- to take advantage.

Lewis is competing with redshirt junior Kevin Collier, redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris and redshirt freshman Chris Burns at tailback. Redshirt sophomore Henry Hynoski clearly is the No. 1 fullback, but Collier is the backup there as well. Pitt running backs coach David Walker likes the competition so far.

"I see ability, but some inexperience,'' Walker said. "Guys are giving effort, and we've made some plays. But we've missed a few as well, so it's been all right so far. In terms of not getting a lot of reps, that's been the story for these guys. But Shariff Harris and Chris Burns have at least been around.

"They've seen more than Dion Lewis. ... Last year, we had veteran guys. They had experience in the classroom and on the field, but that's not the case now. So, we have to coach every part of the offense in the classroom and again when we get on the field. But it's all right. They're learning every day.''

Lewis makes it a point to say that he's short, not small, and at about 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, that assessment holds true. He's also fast, running "in the high 4.3s (in the 40-yard dash),'' Lewis said. And Lewis believes that he compares mostly to NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew in style.

"I'm still learning, but there's been a lot thrown at me so far,'' Lewis said. "I'm just trying to take in as much as possible. The first day, everything was moving very fast, but things are starting to slow down. And today, I think, it went pretty well. So, we'll see how things go the rest of the spring.

"It's a big opportunity for me, because there's an open spot, so I have to come out and go hard every day. You might not always have a good day, but you always have to give a good effort. So, that's what I try to do. I come here ready to work every day, and I try to compete hard and have fun, too.''

Walker praised Lewis' work ethic.

"Dion's doing a nice job,'' Lewis said. "He's a smart kid, and he's been able to separate schemes and things where he can let his ability take over. Some guys don't get that right away, but he has. ... Shariff is playing a lot faster, and so is Chris (But) Dion running around and making plays, that's not a surprise to us.

"It's why we recruited him. He's got a little more shake than Chris and Shariff, but they'll square up and lower their shoulder. So, we've got a nice mix there, and we'll have a pecking order when we get to the game April 11. (And) when we get to August, we'll throw a couple more guys in there. So, it'll be good.''

Walker noted that just because a few guys have left the program, the standard has not been dropped concerning the running backs play. In fact, "there's a very high standard,'' Walker said, "and we're going to make sure that we're going to be effective in this offense.''

For Lewis, it's just a blessing that he enrolled early. He went to Blair Academy in New Jersey and left the prep school halfway through his senior year, so he will be a little bit older (19 in September) and further ahead than the other freshmen coming in this fall.

"Being here early is a big help, just being here and working out with the guys,'' Lewis said. "I can get stronger and faster and get in the playbook. It can help me learn the game. I'm still learning, but watching extra film and getting as many reps as possible is a big help.

"I like to try to run downhill, and if somebody is in my way and I can't make him miss I'll just lower my shoulder. (And) at prep school, we had the same academic schedule, so I'm ahead in that regard, too. But I'm taking 14 credits, so I'm not taking it easy.

"I also take my weightlifting seriously,'' Lewis added. "I have to be strong, and I've always been a hard worker. But working with Buddy, I've learned even more things to do physically to get myself ready. That gets you stronger and bigger and all the running we do, it can only make you better.''

And Lewis has a head start in that area as well.

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