Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis started 12 games at one of the inside linebacker positions in the team’s 3-4 defense last season. He had 46 tackles (one for a loss). Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
August 10, 2018 10:39:07 AM
STARKVILLE -- In the state of Mississippi, Leo Lewis is a lightning rod. He is the subject of a lawsuit, of the Egg Bowl rivalry's recent intensifying and of a recently released documentary (Foul Play) on the state of impermissible benefits in college football.
In Mississippi State's locker room, he is, "a typical young man that we have on our team."
It's easy for MSU linebackers coach Tem Lukabu to have that perspective, this being his first year in the program, but even those that have been around the program since it all began don't see him as the man at the center of a statewide mess. To them, he is a respected player and teammate.
This is a side of the junior from Brookhaven that the public does not get to see, as he is not available to the media with the Rebel Rags lawsuit pending. Teammates and coaches painted a picture of Lewis the person to The Dispatch.
"He wants to have fun, he wants to be around the guys," Lukabu said.
In that natural element -- around his teammates -- Lewis strikes a trademark balance. First, he gets his work done.
Safety Brian Cole played with Lewis in the 2015 Under Armour All-American Game and noticed that disposition even in an exhibition of sorts, a game that is more celebrated for the commitments happening on the sidelines than the actions on the field. That week, Cole saw a, "quiet but passionate," player.
"You see that and you love that," he said. "You follow that because of his passion for the game."
The followers he gains through his work habits had best adopt them, or else they'll find the second half of his locker room balance: a willingness to lead when needed.
"He's going to come in with his hard hat on," safety Mark McLaurin said. "The moment he gets in those doors, even before he gets down to the locker room, he comes in prepared to work and if you're not prepared to work he's going to let you know that."
One of the defense's unquestioned leaders, senior defensive end Gerri Green, sees the same in Lewis: a player thrust into the leadership role by the respect earned from his work ethic. Lewis won't shake this responsibility off.
He is part of a linebacking corps with no seniors; of the four juniors in the mix, Lewis is one of just two that's been a MSU linebacker his entire career. Lukabu has seen Lewis, "grab it by the horns," as the position tries to move on without the presence of last year's leader Dez Harris.
McLaurin knows him to be a vocal leader and now his linebackers coach is seeing the same thing.
"He's one of those guys that's not afraid, he's not going to back down," Lukabu said. "He's doing it by example but he's not afraid to get in somebody's face and tell them that's not the way it's supposed to be done.
"I think he's learned that through experience, and obviously seeing some of the other guys. I'm also very careful to tell him leadership, there isn't one specific way of doing it. The way Ray Lewis leads isn't the way Leo Lewis is going to do it, and it's different for every team. He's learning, but I'm happy to see that he's stepping up to it."
Green is pleased to see this side of Lewis emerge: "He's going to be one of the guys that's going to speak up and let his voice be heard. A lot of guys respect Leo Lewis. Even though he's vocal, he's going to be there for guys when they need someone to let them know they're OK."
Thanks to investigations, both NCAA and civil, Lewis' past is unavoidable, but his teammates don't look at him through the lens of that past. Green called him a mature player that knows what he's doing; McLaurin said simply, "That's not who he is. Leo's someone we can count on."
When Lewis is on the field, he is just like every other Bulldog, playing with the day's goal in mind and further motivated by a bigger one.
"He wants to play at the highest level," Lukabu said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson