Just call him 'Killer'

Rookie Keith Lewis can't relax in the 49ers locker room these days without hearing some term of endearment coming his way. "Man, I get so many nicknames," Lewis said with a shrug, a moment before safety Dwaine Carpenter passed by chirping "The Killer!" with glee. Secondary coach Ron Lynn calls him "The Helmet" because, Lewis said, "every time I hit somebody, they go down." And go down hard. Lewis is developing quite a reputation as a heavy hitter, and now he's doing it in the starting lineup.

Niners coach Dennis Erickson doesn't label Lewis with a nickname, but he has seen enough of Lewis' act this summer to capably describe the sixth-round draft pick's nasty football demeanor in the simplest of terms.

"Obviously, he is very aggressive and a big-time hitter," Erickson said.

That became obvious to the 49ers on the third day of training camp, when Lewis blasted fullback Jasen Isom during team drills, planting Isom on the ground with a massive hit that drew the ire of coaches and veteran teammates. Then, despite being chastised, Lewis did it again the next day when he hammered tight end Gabe Crecion, sending him to the sidelines with an ice pack on his neck for the rest of the afternoon.

"Yeah, I kind of got in a little trouble," Lewis recollected. "But it wasn't much trouble. They just reminded me that those are my teammates and there's going to be plenty of time for me to lay wood on the other people."

Those times have come during the preseason, and Lewis is not letting up on laying the wood to others.

Just ask the Minnesota Vikings.

Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Jim Kleinsasser and All-Pro receiver Randy Moss all went down hard last week after being hit by Lewis. The 6-foot, 202-pound rookie dumped the 264-pound Culpepper for a sack and brought down both the elusive Moss and the 272-pound Kleinsasser with open-field collisions.

"I've been an aggressive, physical player all my life," Lewis said. "I never played safety until I got to college. But with my aggression and how physical a player I am, it came pretty naturally. It comes from instincts, and I'd rather give punishment than take it all the time."

Lewis was switched to safety at the University of Oregon after he gained 1,800 yards as a high school senior running back in Sacramento. He was a two-time All-Pac 10 selection, starting all but one game the past three years at free safety.

That gave him plenty of time to define and refine his mentality as a hitter. Lewis has the perfect hit already etched into his mind.

"A perfect hit is a receiver stretched out and you're coming from a perfect angle," Lewis said. "That would be the perfect hit for me, but I haven't had one of those yet. I'm kind of scared right now, because that helmet-to-helmet fine isn't cheap."

Which makes you wonder how scared opposing receivers must be getting when they see the 49ers – and Lewis – approaching on the schedule.

"He's not afraid to mix it up whether it be a running back, a tight end, an offensive lineman, or whoever it is," said Al Simmons, who also coaches the Niners' secondary. "I've always liked his aggressiveness. I've seen Keith a long time. I was involved in recruiting him when I was at Cal. He's always been aggressive, and I've always liked the things he's brought to the table."

Lewis' biggest adjustment this year has been developing coverage skills at the NFL level. That often has been a struggle for a player who relied on physical ability in college.

"He can smack you, and he can run," Lynn said. "But he's like Charles Dickens. It's the best of times. It's the worst of times. He does things well, but he needs to be more consistent."

Lewis was consistent when given extended playing time against Minnesota. With seven tackles and the team's only sack, he was one of the few bright spots in a poor 49ers defensive effort.

Lewis will start again at strong safety Thursday when the 49ers host the San Diego Chargers in a preseason finale. Lewis is replacing All-Pro Tony Parrish, who is out until the regular season with a torn calf muscle.

"Keith will start until Tony comes back," Erickson said. "Keith was a guy that really jumped out (against Minnesota). He's getting better and better at understanding the defense. He's just a quick ballplayer, and he also has made a lot of plays on special teams."

With only one start, Lewis ranks third on the team with 13 preseason tackles. He's more concerned with how he's coming along in coverage.

"I definitely believe I helped myself last week, but at the same time, there's still a lot of little things that I have to get right," Lewis said. "I'm still trying to get it down and learn my position. Right now, it's more about getting into the right places. Once I figure out exactly where I'm supposed to be, I'll be able to lay a lot more people out."

That, of course, is what it usually comes down to with Keith Lewis. He's a hitter through and through, and that will be how he makes his impact as he develops at the position with the Niners.

And those menacing monikers? Well, the labels are sticking. A few of his teammates snuck into Lewis' locker and wrote them on the hat Lewis likes to wear during his spare time.

"I don't really care for the nicknames," Lewis said. "But I can't get away from them right now."

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