Dorsett, of course, was the key cog in Pitt football’s mid-1970s resurgence, helping the Panthers win the 1976 national title and racking up a more than few individual rewards along with the way—including the 1976 Heisman Trophy. Dorsett went on to the NFL, enjoyed a long and successful career and remains the finest tailback to ever play for the Panthers.
At least for now, that is.
Because, the thing is, Lewis—a super-talented true sophomore—may prove to be just as good as the great Dorsett. Or (dare I say it) even better.
Lewis took the college football world by storm in 2009, literally coming out of nowhere to rush for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns for the 10-3 Panthers. He was named Second-Team All-American, Big East Rookie of the Year and Big East Offensive Player of the Year, among several other honors, and capped his freshman year with an MVP performance in the Meinke Car Care Bowl, rushing for 159 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s 19-17 win over North Carolina.
Lewis’ sensational season was one of the most remarkable freshman campaigns in recent college football history. And the thing is, almost nobody expected it to happen.
A true “under-the-radar” prospect, Lewis was so lightly recruited out of high school that even the in-state Rutgers Scarlet Knights (though he's from Albany, N.Y., Lewis attended the Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J.) didn’t offer him a scholarship (to be fair, most other Division I schools didn’t, either). The recruiting service Scout.com had Lewis listed as the 70th-best tailback in the country.
But once Lewis landed at Pitt, it didn’t take him long to prove the doubters wrong. He enrolled in January to get a head start on his college career, quickly adjusted to the college game and, by August, had won himself the starting job. He gained 129 yards in his first start, 190 in his second, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As we look ahead to the 2010 season, Lewis is rightfully considered one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy, and the Panthers are the favorites to win the Big East.
I recently caught up with the soft-spoken Lewis to talk about his incredible freshman year, the pending Heisman race and what we should expect from the Panthers in 2010.
A lot has been made of the fact that you didn’t get a lot of attention on the recruiting trail. You weren’t highly rated by the recruiting services and didn’t get many scholarship offers, either. How did you take that? Did you get worried at any point?
I just kept positive. I kind of figured everything would eventually work out. I wasn’t too worried. I just knew I had to be patient.
Not many big-time schools offered you a scholarship. But Pitt eventually did. What did you like about the Panther program?
I remember coming out here for a visit and I really liked the campus a lot. I felt very comfortable here [with the coaches] and I knew I really liked the program.
You enrolled in January to get a semester under your belt before your freshman season. How did enrolling early contribute to your success in 2009, how big of an adjustment was it for you from high school ball to the college game, and when did you know you were going to be good enough to play at this level?
I came out here in January with the idea of getting a little bit of a head start—to get used to college, really. I could also mix in a little bit of football, but it wasn’t totally demanding of all of my time.
[The adjustment to college] was pretty big. It was a little bit overwhelming. I knew it was going to be different, but as time went past, I got much more comfortable. I started [at tailback] from the beginning, and after those first two games, that’s when I knew [I was going to make it]. I really felt comfortable. There’s a lot coming at you all at once, but I decided I was going to take it slow and just enjoy it all. It was a great first season and I have a bunch of good memories.
Is there one moment that really stands out to you?
Yes—my first touchdown run. That’s one thing I’ll always remember.
A lot of people are expecting big things from you guys this year. So what’s your team goal?
Our only goal is to win the Big East championship. After what happened last year, with those two tough losses at the end [to West Virginia and Cincinnati], everyone knows how close we were. We don’t want to have that happen again.