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BillyCarpenter1 07-31-2003 08:14 AM

Derrick Lewis eyes roster spot
Lewis eyes roster spot

Former track star makes big strides

Advocate sportswriter

METAIRIE -- Derrick Lewis was just another guy, just another free agent wide receiver, when the New Orleans Saints arrived for training camp at Nicholls State University last summer.
An unknown to almost everyone but his family and friends, Lewis, a New Orleans native who had more experience in track and field than football, was determined to make someone notice him.

After emerging from a tryout camp held by the Saints, Lewis wasn't about to give up easily even though he was a long shot to beat the enormous odds and earn a spot on a roster that already included wide receivers Joe Horn, Donte Stallworth and Jerome Pathon.

But while Horn, Stallworth and Pathon were solidifying spots as the top three receivers in Mike McCarthy's offense, and fan favorite Michael Lewis and old pro Jake Reed were getting lots of attention as well, Derrick Lewis quietly came in under the radar.

"In college, I didn't learn too much about football," said Lewis, a two-sport star in basketball and track and field at J.S. Clark High School. "I was new to the game, so they threw me a lot of posts and fades."

A group of guys, however, noticed how Lewis, a national champion in the long and triple jumps at Sacramento City Junior College before heading to San Diego State on a football scholarship, was showing that he had some speed and football skills.

"The other players started talking about him," Saints wide receivers coach Hubbard Alexander said. "Going to camp, I thought he wasn't that fast and thought he might be sort of a possession receiver.

"But (former strong safety) Sammy Knight and a couple of other defensive backs came and told that me this guy can run," he said. "So I started paying attention to him."

His combination of size, speed and leaping ability kept him in the mix for playing time in the exhibition season even though he caught only one pass for 19 yards.

By the time the Saints coaching staff made their final cuts, Lewis was still a consideration. They kept only five wide receivers, however, but added him to the practice squad the next day.

Lewis figured he had come a long way after only three years of college football, but he knows his journey won't be complete unless he wins a spot on this year's roster. After a solid offseason, the 6-foot-2, 197-pounder is the favorite to be the team's fifth wide receiver.

The improvements he made were touted often during a minicamp and coaching sessions by Saints coach Jim Haslett. And his opinion hasn't changed since training camp began on Saturday.

"Derrick has probably put on 15 pounds of muscle, so he's bigger and stronger," Haslett said. "He's done a better job of getting off the press (coverage). He has outstanding hands, runs great routes and has good explosiveness."

But the key, Lewis said, is taking it to the next level.

"Since I've been with the Saints, I've had to learn how to run routes and figure out what the defenses were doing," he said. "Thinking on the run and trying to learn what the defense was trying to do to me was kind of tough.

"But it's starting to become natural to me," Lewis said. "Every day I learn something new. I'm just thankful they gave me a chance to come to camp last year, and coach Alexander saw something in me. Now, I don't have anything to lose."

What Alexander saw was a fluid athlete who used his track skills to his advantage during a post-draft tryout at the Saints Training Facility.

"We had some guys here for an all-comers tryout and he was the only one that stood out," Alexander said. "I thought he was quick, but not that fast. But he really caught my eye when he came out of a break. He was under control and he had no wasted motion."

After coming so far in the last year, however, Lewis knows the rest is up to him.

"I still don't have anything to lose," he said. "I did a lot of running and weightlifting in the offseason and I refined my route-running. I just have to keep trying hard.

"The coaches have confidence in me and the quarterbacks have confidence in me. They throw me the ball all the time in practice. I just need to get in the game and prove that I can do it."

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