On an embattled defense, Lewis steps up

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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 5, 2014

It was Devin Gardner’s first pass in Michigan Stadium in a pressure situation since his potential game-winning overtime two-point conversion attempt was picked off by Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell in November.

The fifth-year senior quarterback dropped back on the first play of the Michigan football team’s Spring Game and saw freshman wide receiver Freddy Canteen in man-to-man coverage down the sideline. Gardner flung the ball to Canteen with the same end result as the play more than four months ago.

This time, sophomore cornerback Jourdan Lewis played the role of Powell, leaping and intercepting Gardner’s heave.

“He was just man-to-man and (Gardner) thought he was open,” Lewis chuckled.

The throw didn’t have nearly the consequence of Gardner’s previous interception, but it signified the possible emergence of a new force in Michigan’s secondary.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke praised Lewis multiple times this spring, and the sophomore showed why when he trotted out on the field with the first-team defense. He began the scrimmage with a bang for the Wolverines, one he hopes was an early indicator of the team’s new defensive mentality.

“Just getting hands on guys and trying to intimidate them,” Lewis said. “That’s our key point right there. Being physical, that’s what (Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison) is always talking about, being a physical defense.”

His first interception was far from his only difference-making, physical play of the day. Later in the scrimmage, Gardner zipped a pass into junior Devin Funchess’ chest. The wide reciver appeared to have it cradled for a moment until Lewis popped the ball loose with a big hit, and it fell to the turf.

Like many physical defensive players, Lewis’ play wasn’t free of consequence, even in the Spring Game. He was flagged for defensive pass interference penalties on consecutive plays, the first time for putting his hands on Funchess, the second for interfering with junior slot receiver Dennis Norfleet.

Lewis disagreed with the second call, but isn’t particularly opposed to taking penalties if it meant he was playing tough defense. Neither is Mattison.

“He said ‘be physical’,” Lewis said. “But he doesn’t care if it’s great defense and we get a penalty.”

In his freshman season, Lewis appeared in all 13 games, but his defensive role wasn’t extensive at first, as he appeared primarily on special teams. As the season progressed, his time in the secondary increased, but like a typical freshman cornerback, Lewis was picked on at times. Lewis registered 17 tackles, but didn’t make game-changing plays Michigan hopes for out of a starting cornerback.

This year, it looks like that could change. During the scrimmage and the practice beforehand, Lewis spent the majority of the time running with the first-team defense, in addition to sharing time returning punts with Norfleet in practice. While his temporary starting spot is far from guaranteed come fall, significant playing time is on the horizon.

“He’s a talented guy, very athletic,” Hoke said. “He’s getting stronger, which helps.”

When he played with the second team for a few reps late in the scrimmage, Lewis displayed that talent once again. On a defense devoid of playmakers last season, the cornerback looks like he might be able to fill that role.

Lewis capped off his day with a second interception, this time off sophomore quarterback Shane Morris, proving he wasn’t picky when it comes to quarterback prey. Yet again, Lewis won a battle against Funchess. After he came away with the ball, Lewis sprinted toward the end zone with an open field in front of him, but was stopped, because it was just a scrimmage after all.

But for Lewis, there were worse places to be stopped.