Alex Lewis is a senior, but the second-year Badger is still getting the hang of big-time college football.
"When he came in here last year he was like a freshman, a freshman being thrown into the starting spot," linebacker Jeff Mack said. "That is hard on anybody, especially somebody coming from a team that probably didn't have the most sophisticated defense."
Lewis, a highly-touted junior college transfer from SUNY-Morrisville State College, struggled at times last season to pick up the nuances of playing linebacker at the Division I level. Raw athleticism and talent alone would not cut it anymore. Sure, Lewis still made plays. He recorded 86 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and one sack last season, playing in all 14 games, starting 10. Lewis displayed persistent flashes of the type of player he could, and has, become. It was, however, a slow road.
"It was a big transition from the junior college to Division I," Lewis said. "People are a lot faster and smarter. The ‘ju-co' has a lot of athletes, but here we are tuned to waiting for somebody to mess up because we all have the same ability. I have to slow down and break down and maintain my responsibilities."
Lewis made his presence felt immediately this season, blocking a punt following West Virginia's season-opening three-and-out. The ball squirted around the end zone before Kareem Timbers fell on it in the end zone, giving the Badgers an early 7-0 lead.
Wisconsin's momentum in the West Virginia game did not last long, but in the closing moments, with the Badgers back in the lead, it was Lewis who again came up big. On a third and two from the West Virginia 33 with less than two minutes left to play, Mountaineer quarterback Rasheed Marshall locked onto receiver Travis Garvin along the sideline. Lewis, though, made a break on the ball and knocked it away, displaying his vastly improved coverage skills.
Fourth down. This time, Lewis blew off the ball and corralled Marshall seven yards behind the line, effectively ending the game.
Lewis, the player who struggled to pick things up last year, has been given a variety of duties this season.
The sack of Marshall came on a blitz, but Lewis has been rushing from a three-point stance often this season, lining up as a defensive end in the nickel package, a spot Lewis was first placed in during spring practices. The Badgers did not feature the nickel often against Akron, but against the Mountaineers, Lewis provided consistent pressure of the edge, recording two quarterback hurries. On one such hurry, Lewis delivered a fierce, and clean, blow to Marshall just after he delivered the ball, resulting in the West Virginia starter missing two and a half quarters of play.
Despite this success, Wisconsin would prefer to keep Lewis solely at linebacker once the team feels more confident with its depth on the defensive line. Defensive end Erasmus James is out indefinitely with a hip injury and the Badgers missed end/tackle Darius Jones last week due to suspension and will miss end/tackle Nick Cochart this week due to a sprained ankle.
"I think sometimes we give Alex too many things to do and he's a guy that needs repetitions and needs to feel comfortable with them," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "We just need to get him back to square one and play linebacker and concentrate on that and I'd like to be able to get back to that. But he gives you speed off the corner. It's a luxury to be able to have him do that."
There it is again, the simplicity. Moreover this season, the Badgers are hoping to reign in Lewis, to teach him a little patience. Lewis knows only one gear on the field: full go, full adrenaline. He flies to the ball and levies huge hits all over the field. His excitement, though, can lead to some missed assignments.
"It is just understanding the formation, understanding what the offense is going to throw at you," Mack said. "A lot of times I think he gets too into the game and just goes out and plays. Sometimes he needs to take a step back and just look at what the offense wants to do and then he can react to that, but he is coming along so fast."
In two games this season Lewis has contributed 13 tackles, the fourth-highest total on the team. He is tied with Mack for the team lead with three tackles for loss. Lewis's best traits are still his athleticism and energy level, but the junior college transfer who struggled to learn the defense is now beginning to break down opponents quite well.
"He has improved so much," Mack said. "You can see it in the speed of his game. He always plays fast but now he is playing fast and smart, which is amazing."
"I'm just enjoying playing the game," Lewis said. "I'm just enjoying playing with my teammates."