Just about everything went right for the Colorado football team during a season-opening 45-13 rout of rival Colorado State on Aug. 31.
For Drew Lewis, however, it didn’t feel right.
In the 49 snaps he played against the Rams, the senior outside linebacker finished with two tackles.
“I almost felt like I was a disappointment for that position,” Lewis said. “I felt like I wasn’t doing my job to the complete potential.”
Lewis’ feelings weren’t surprising, given that in 2017, he led the Buffs with 119 tackles, averaging 9.9 per game. He also had two sacks, eight QB pressures and four pass breakups. From his position at inside linebacker, he was about as active as anyone on the CU defense.
This year, when preseason camp began Aug. 1, Lewis was looking forward to teaming up with fellow senior Rick Gamboa again as the starters at inside linebacker. Together, they racked up 236 tackles last year.
Talented sophomore Nate Landman was expected to rotate in, as well, giving the Buffs a solid trio inside.
Just a few days into camp, however, head coach Mike MacIntyre realized the three-man rotation wasn’t the right solution for the Buffs.
“I said ‘We have to get (Nate), Drew and Rick on the field at the same time,” MacIntyre said last week.
The only way to do that was to move Lewis to outside linebacker, because he’s got the speed to excel on the edge that Gamboa and Landman don’t have.
“Sitting down and talking to Drew was the biggest deal in it,” MacIntyre said, “but he said, ‘Coach I’ll do whatever we need to do for the team.’ It didn’t take much convincing at all.”
Like MacIntyre — and really anyone who had been at practice – Lewis knew Landman needed to be on the field. Two games into this season, there’s no doubt.
Landman has racked up 28 tackles, two interceptions and three tackles for loss. He was Pac-12 defensive player of the week after the CSU win, and the Bronko Nagurski national defensive of the week after Saturday’s 33-28 win at Nebraska.
“You see him blowing up right now, so I can’t be anything but happy for Nate right now,” Lewis said this week.
While Lewis knows it was the right move and unselfishly agreed to it last month, he admits that it initially felt like a demotion.
“A whole lot,” he said when asked if he had hesitation about moving outside. “As soon as I transitioned to outside, the first instinct was, ‘Am I going to be as productive as I was inside?’ I didn’t see the numbers, so I thought I wasn’t doing as well.”
Immediately after the CSU game, Lewis focused on his two tackles. He had 12 against the Rams last year.
In the days after that game, however, Lewis began to turn the corner mentally.
“After watching the film and seeing that my factor percentage was pretty high, I was doing my job,” he said. “You’re obviously not in on as many tackles as you are on the inside, because your main job is almost to force the ball back in for the inside backers.”
Teammates and coaches helped Lewis realize last week that doing his job helped Landman and others rack up numbers (Gamboa is quietly having a good season, as well, with 20 tackles). That helped Lewis take more confidence into his preparation last week, and against Nebraska he registered seven tackles, including one for loss, and two quarterback hurries.
“Like coach Mac says: ‘Star in your role and everyone is going to see your dreams come true'” Lewis said. “I really did feel I made more plays (against Nebraska). I did feel I was more of a factor this week all around. It might be me getting more comfortable, but I feel I’m getting my niche going on out there on the outside, so it’s pretty sweet.”
While Landman is garnering national attention and playing like a star, Lewis’ move to the outside has been just as critical for the Buffs’ defense. His developing confidence figures to help him, and the defense as a whole.
“I’m ready to embrace this role as much as I can and I’m just going to do my job,” he said. “I’m not going to get too excited or disappointed about the number of tackles I get. Obviously I want to get the sacks, but the total number of tackles, it’s going to take care of itself. As long as we continue winning games, you can’t be upset.”