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Dave Wannstedt Looks Back on Recruitment, Career of Former Pitt Star RB Dion Lewis



On Friday, former Pitt running back and ten-year NFL veteran Dion Lewis retired from the NFL, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

More than 13 years after the unranked playmaker first arrived at Pitt, he has now finally closed the book on an illustrious football career that included a Super Bowl Title.

From the moment that Lewis stepped on the field for the first time as a Panther, Pitt fans fell in love with the 5-foot-8 speedster’s game, style, and personality.

However, before fans had ever even heard of Lewis, Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt had a plan in mind the entire time.

When then-starter LeSean McCoy was heading into his second season for Pitt, almost everyone around the program knew that he would not be there for four years. McCoy was a stud in every sense of the word, racking up 1,500+ yards from scrimmage along with his 15 touchdowns as a freshman. Knowing that he would need a running back to come in quickly if McCoy decided to leave, Wannstedt sent his coaches on a mission that summer:

“Go find me some running backs that we can look at that can show up in January if LeSean leaves,” Wannstedt told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “So everybody headed out on the road, and guys were sending tape in, take a look at this guy, and so on. Jeff Hafley brought a tape in on Dion Lewis, and he says, ‘Coach, I’m not going to tell you his size, I’m not going to tell you who is recruiting him, I want you to just watch the tape.”

What happened next was something that Wannstedt never would have expected.

“In all honesty, it was the least amount of evaluating tape that I have ever watched, ever,” he said about Lewis’ high-school highlight reel. “I am including Aaron Donald, Jabaal Sheard, and Dom Decicco, and all these guys that were great players. I think I watched six or seven plays. And I turned the film off and I said, alright tell me about him.”

In high school, Lewis was in no way a sure-fire Power Five prospect. According to his ESPN football recruiting profile, he was being recruited by Miami Ohio, Syracuse, Tulane, Pitt, and UConn.

“Jeff says, ‘Alright, well he doesn’t have many offers, he’s not very tall,'” Wannstedt continued. “And I said, ‘If he is the type of individual, type of person, and if he will come down here and make a trip with his parents in June, tell him that I’ll offer him a scholarship. So Dion and his mom and dad drove down, I met them in June, and I offered him a scholarship to come to Pitt. And the rest is history.”

Once Lewis got to Pitt, it was clear that the 5-foot-8 running back was much more powerful than his height could truly show.

“Buddy Morris was our strength coach, and Buddy came up to me and he did some type of testing with all of the players,” Wannstedt said. “And he came up to me and I say ‘How did it go with the lifting, who are our strong guys?’ And he says, ‘Guess who the strongest player, pound for pound, on our football team is? Dion Lewis.'”

In his freshman year at Pitt, Lewis, a native of Albany, New York, racked up 1,988 yards from scrimmage as well as 18 touchdowns in 13 games. In his sophomore campaign, his numbers went down a little, but he still piled up more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage to go along with 13 more touchdowns. Two of the best years by a running back in Pitt football’s star-studded history.

“Between the leg testing and the upper body, everything combined, the guy was powerful,” Wannstedt said. “He could make you miss, there was no doubt about that. But I will tell you what. When he was running through the line of scrimmage, you better wrap him up, and bring him down. He would break as many arm tackles as he would make guys miss. And that was the one thing I don’t think people gave him enough power for, was his power. I had no reservations on fourth and one, when everybody knew we were going to run it, when everybody knew who was going to get the ball, I had no reservations. None.”

After his two seasons at Pitt, Lewis was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. A so-called NFL journeyman, Lewis ended up playing for Philadelphia, New England, Tennessee, and most recently the New York Giants in his ten-year career.

“He was tough,” Wannstedt added. “When the guy was banged up and had some injuries, he could play through. The guy was tough. He could play when he was hurt. I think if you ask him, I am going to bet that from the day he started playing football, because of his size, he always felt like he had to prove himself. So that was just a way of life for Dion Lewis.”

In the 2016-17 season, Lewis played seven games, rushing for 283 yards on an average of 4.4 yards per carry. That season, Lewis, alongside backfield mates LeGarrette Blount and James White, led the Pats to the Super Bowl. In the title game, Lewis carried the ball six times for 27 yards, hauled in one reception for two yards, and earned one very special ring.

“I interviewed him when we did the Super Bowl when he was in New England and they came back and beat the Falcons,” Wannstedt said. “We were doing post-game interviews, and I brought him on the set. Bill Belichick said he was a major, major part of the Patriots getting to the Super Bowl that year.”

Lewis’ most impressive season came the next year in 2017, when he played in all 16 games, accumulated 1,110 yards from scrimmage, and scored nine total touchdowns for New England.

He then moved on to play for the Titans and had another solid year of 500+ rushing yards in 2018, but after the emergence of Derrick Henry, his role diminished. He played one more season with the Titans in 2019, one with the Giants in 2020, and has now decided to hang up the cleats for good in 2021.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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