On February 4th, former Pitt running back Dion Lewis will play in his second straight Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. As New England’s regular season leader in carries (180), rushing yards (896) and touchdowns (6), it is easy to forget that Lewis was once barely recruited by Division I universities. When Pitt offered Lewis as a recruit in the Class of 2009, the 3-star prospect out of New Jersey’s Blair Academy held offers from only two other schools: Miami of Ohio and Tulane.
So what did the Panthers, under head coach Dave Wannstedt, see in Dion that so many others missed? Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Coach Wannstedt to reflect on how such a lightly recruited running back ended up at Pitt.
“Well it’s kind of an interesting story, because at the time we offered Dion, we were going through a year where all the conversations that I had – and everyone had – with LeSean McCoy, was that he would be coming back for another year,” Wannstedt recalls. “And I knew better; just a gut feeling. … I got my staff together and I said, ‘Even though LeSean says that he’s staying for another year at Pitt, I don’t want to get stuck. I want everybody to go out on the road and find a running back that can graduate and be here in January in case LeSean leaves early.’ I said, ‘I just have a gut feeling it’s going to happen.’”
At the time, Pitt’s secondary coach, Jeff Hafley, served as the team’s primary recruiter in New Jersey. While scouring the Garden State for a running back befitting of Wannstedt’s criteria, he discovered Lewis, an ostensibly underwhelming prospect who Hafley believed held real potential.
“[Coach Hafley] brings in this tape and he says, ‘Coach, here’s a running back. He’s not very big. He’s not being recruited. But just watch the tape and let me know. He can be here in January.
“I put on the tape and I literally think it was four, five plays – Hafley says it was eight plays – but at the most it was eight plays that I watched, and I turned the film off and I said, ‘Here’s the deal: you get Dion and his parents to come in here. If he’s the type of person that we want in this program – I want to sit down and talk with him – if he’s the type of person that we want, you tell him if he comes in, he’ll have a scholarship.’”
Dion visited Pitt in June of 2008. With Lewis listed between 5-feet-7-inches and 5-feet-9-inches tall on most media sites, Wannstedt immediately noticed how generous those listings were. Despite an unspectacular initial impression, though, Wannstedt had found his running back.
“He wasn’t 5’8”; he was about 5’6”. It was already off to a bad start,” Wannstedt joked. “But after about ten minutes of talking to him, I said, ‘You know what? This is a great young man.’ We offered him a scholarship, he committed, the rest is history.”
Dion’s size, or lack thereof, caused a majority of college recruiters to overlook the New Jersey Prep Offensive Player of the Year. Wannstedt, who trusts a recruit’s film over his offer sheet, knew just how mighty miniature backs can be, especially after his tenure as the Chicago Bears’ head coach.
“No,” Wannstedt replied, when asked if he thought Dion’s height would limit the back’s on field performance. “You know why? I was with the [Chicago] Bears and we had to play against the Detroit Lions every year, and Barry Sanders was their running back. So I had no reservations about his size, because of his strength and because of his quickness.”
To be fair, Wannstedt did question whether Dion’s size would affect his ability to assume the duties of primary ball carrier in Pitt’s run-heavy offense. Lewis’ stature might not hinder his performance, but could he endure a season of punishment in the Big East?
As the Panthers’ head coach had predicted, LeSean McCoy declared for the NFL following his sophomore season, giving Lewis an immediate opportunity to prove his durability. The Blair Academy product quickly squashed any concerns, earning Big East Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors as a true freshman after rushing for 1,799 yards and scoring 18 total touchdowns.
“In the offense that we ran, when I talked to running backs, I said, ‘You’ve got to be ready to carry the ball 25 times a game, because that’s what we’re going to do here.’ When you’re telling a guy that’s 5’6” that, you’re saying it and he’s agreeing, but in the back of your mind you’re saying, ‘Will he be able to hold up?’
“Well, he was able to hold up.”
Many of the top backs listed at 5-feet-8-inches and under possess that “home run” speed coaches at all levels covet. Although Lewis ripped off a number of extended runs in high school and college, he was never considered to be a speed back. At the 2011 NFL Combine, Lewis posted an official 40-yard dash time of 4.57 seconds, confirming that his straight line speed may not compare favorably to others of his size. However, Coach Wannstedt never worried, nor cared, about Dion’s track speed. Instead, Lewis reminded Dave of his days coaching under John Robinson at the University of Southern California. Robinson’s Trojans featured Marcus Allen at running back, an eventual College Football Hall of Fame inductee who won the Heisman trophy despite lacking true track speed. Wannstedt recalls a lesson he once learned from Coach Robinson on the insignificance of Marcus Allen’s track speed, a lesson which he applied to Dion at Pitt years later.
“Don’t time Marcus Allen, because he runs as fast as he has to,” Wannstedt heard Robinson say. “That is the way it is with Dion Lewis; he runs as fast as he has to.”
Was Dion Lewis undersized? Absolutely. Did he boast impressive track speed? Not quite. But he shared one thing in common with many of the legendary backs Wannstedt had coached over the years, and it was as apparent in high school as it is today with the Patriots: Dion can B.Y.O.B.
“The great running backs that I have been fortunate to be around – Emmit Smith, Ricky Williams, LeSean McCoy – all these guys, the one thing that they could do was, I used to say, B.Y.O.B.: Be Your Own Blocker. In other words, if the blocking broke down, or they gave us a defense we weren’t ready for, I always wanted running backs that could make something happen on their own. Be your own blocker. You’ve got no blockers? Let me see if you can make a play.
“Dion was probably – I include Ricky Williams [and] all those backs – he was probably the quickest change-of-pace back that I’ve ever coached. He could start and stop in a hole on a dime.
“And the other thing, Buddy Morris, who was my strength coach, after working Dion out in our weight room made the comment that he was the strongest player on our team, pound for pound. And to this day, when you watch him play for the Patriots, he makes people miss, but he breaks a lot of tackles; he gets a lot of yards-after-contact.”
Lewis enjoyed a highly productive career at Pitt. In two seasons, he accumulated 2,860 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns on 544 carries, while adding 405 yards and 1 touchdown on 52 receptions. Thanks to his time at preparatory school, he was able to declare for the 2011 NFL draft following his sophomore season, where he was a fifth round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles.
After failing to gain traction in the NFL during his first four seasons, Lewis signed with the New England Patriots in 2015, where he holds a significant role in the team’s offense today. With 96 rushing yards on 24 carries and 111 receiving yards on 16 receptions in this year’s playoffs, it is fair to assume that he will receive multiple opportunities to shine in Super Bowl LII. From a mere three scholarship offers to the Super Bowl, Dion Lewis has come a long way.
Not even Coach Wannstedt knew that Lewis would find such success in the NFL, although he was always aware of his running back’s potential. But while he may not have foreseen the outcome, he knows exactly why Dion has become yet another Pitt Panther to excel in the NFL.
“I interviewed him last year – we had the Super Bowl, Fox did – and I interviewed him on TV afterwards,” said Wannstedt. “I asked him about [Tom] Brady, and all he talked about was how hard Brady worked, and he said, ‘That inspires me every day.’
“That work ethic that Dion had, I think because of his size, he always had to outwork people in order to get an opportunity. So I think the size disadvantage really worked to his advantage, from the standpoint that he has to prove himself all the time.”