First Posted: 4/10/2014
He hasn’t finished his second year on campus yet. No matter. Penn State needs him to lead now.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, it’s a role Eugene Lewis has relished in the past.
On the gridiron at Wyoming Valley West and on the hardcourt at Meyers, Lewis was an integral part of postseason teams for both schools. Now as spring practice winds down with Saturday’s Blue-White Game, he finds himself at the forefont once again.
Groomed as a starter at wide receiver at the tailend of Penn State’s 2013 season, Lewis has seen more snaps than any other wideout on the roster, despite redshirting in 2012 and spending much of last year learning the ropes.
Only Matt Zanellato, a year ahead of Lewis, has spent longer in the program among the receivers.
That means coaches and teammates are starting to look Lewis’ way for direction. And he’s happy to play the role.
“Absolutely,” Lewis said Thursday. “In high school (at Valley West), I was the main leader on my team. Even last year, I felt like I had some qualities of being a leader. You just have to be patient, and when it comes time, you have to step up and say something.
“I’m ready to start speaking up and helping my team as much as possible.”
With star wideout Allen Robinson leaving early for the NFL, the Lions will certainly need that.
While no one is expecting Lewis to duplicate Robinson’s record-shattering numbers in his first full season as a starter, he has the inside track to take over Robinson’s role as the top target for Christian Hackenberg.
As a redshirt freshman, Lewis was on and off the field during the middle of the season, at times only seeing one or two passes come his way in a game.
By November, however, he had taken over Brandon Felder’s starting job opposite Robinson and caught two touchdowns in the Lions’ season-ending upset of Wisconsin. And by that point, he began to develop his on-field rapport with Hackenberg.
“At the end of the year, I got more opportunities, so we got to be on a better page,” Lewis said of his quarterback. “That helped out a lot. And with Allen and Brandon leaving, I had to step up into another role. I had to make sure we’re on the same page because I knew I’d be one of his top receivers. I have to make sure he has that comfort zone out there.”
Like with any other instance of quarterback-receiver chemistry, it has to start off the field.
Whether it’s in the film room, locker room or during meals and downtime, it’s important for the two to be able to communicate well.
“Geno and I have been tight since I got up here,” Hackenberg said. “I enjoy just sitting with him, and talking or throwing the ball around and working with him.
“He’s accepting the role as an older guy in the wide receiver room.”
Apart from becoming more vocal, that also means sharpening up his skills. Lewis said repeatedly last season that his biggest area for improvement was his route-running.
And while the former Spartans quarterback said he made significant strides there in 2013, it’s still a top priority this offseason.
Lewis said new receivers coach Josh Gattis has especially helped him with some of the nuances of it.
“One thing he’s definitely shown me is transitioning out of a route,” Lewis said. “Getting to the top of the route and breaking out of it faster.
“He also emphasizes our stances — how to lead and get your weight forward to your front foot so you can get out of your stance faster.”
It all adds up to what could be a breakout season for the Lewis, who became the Lions’ first scholarship player from the Wyoming Valley Conference in eight years when he joined the team in 2012.
Joe Paterno recruited him, Bill O’Brien developed him and now James Franklin hopes he can star for him.
“He’s a big body kid with great ball skills,” the new Lions coach said Thursday. “I’ve been very pleased with him.”