J. Lewis focuses on football amidst legal turmoil

WESTMINSTER -- Darting ahead, his helmet tilted forward, Jamal Lewis glided past the secondary.

Although the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl running back remains capable of bulldozing linebackers as training camp opened Friday in Westminster, a sleeker physique and a resolute focus amidst a cloudy legal situation defined his outlook.

One season removed from rushing for 2,066 yards — the second-highest total in league history — the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year appears primed for a worthy encore. The major question mark for Lewis, 25, is an indictment on federal drug conspiracy charges.

"I have to come in and do as good or better than I did the previous year," said Lewis, who shattered the single-game rushing mark with 295 yards last September against the Cleveland Browns. "If not, it means I didn't get better. I have big shoes to fill from last year and we're going to see how it pans out."

Lewis has trimmed down to 235 pounds, his lowest reporting weight since entering the league five years ago, through an exercise regimen of boxing and running hills, along with a stricter diet. He estimated that he's in the best shape of his life and expressed optimism that quarterback Kyle Boller can inject some balance into a one-dimensional offense.

"I think everybody knows that we are going to run the football, so we have to really freshen up on the aspect of throwing the football," Lewis said.

Even though Lewis' plain purple practice jersey didn't include his familiar No. 31, there was no mistaking his presence at McDaniel College. Lewis continually sprinted ahead of pursuit. "Jamal always has that serious face on," said Musa Smith, Lewis' backup. "He looks like he spent a lot of time lifting steel."

Lewis gained 129.1 yards per contest last season on a career-high 387 carries. The centerpiece of the Ravens' top-ranked rushing game averaged 5.3 yards per carry, scoring 14 touchdowns.

Lewis may not find his most formidable obstacle to another blockbuster season at the line of scrimmage.

He has proclaimed his innocence to charges of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and using a cellular phone in the commission of a drug crime. The charges stem from FBI allegations that Lewis helped broker a major cocaine deal for a childhood friend during the summer of 2000 shortly before signing a six-year $35.3 million contract with the Ravens.

He remains free on a $500,000 bond and no trial date has been set, although the Ravens have acknowledged the strong possibility that Lewis could stand trial during the season. Lewis is hopeful he could play in a game after spending much of the week in a courtroom instead of on a practice field.

"I run the same plays every week," said Lewis, who was closing in on a lucrative contract extension prior to his arrest. "I just have to know where my gaps and my guards and my reads are, where the hole is and I hit it and go."

However, coach Brian Billick isn't so certain of the viability of that scenario.

Beyond teammates such as All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis marveling over his conditioning, Lewis has also made an impression with his ability to block out off-field issues.

While traversing all of that NFL real estate last season, Lewis was aware he was under the scrutiny of an FBI investigation. The team was unaware of his predicament.

"I was hoping that it would go away, hoping that it might disappear," Lewis said in June. If convicted, Lewis could face a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years if the alleged conspiracy is found to involve at least five kilograms of cocaine.

Despite the turmoil, Lewis hasn't changed his approach. If anything, he said this legal imbroglio has fueled his anger and spurred him toward a greater devotion to football.

"With all of the auxiliary things, he has handled things pretty well and handled his business," running backs coach Matt Simon said. "I think he's a better young man, not that he was bad young person before, but he has grown and matured quite well."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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