Like a lot of young players, Isaiah Lewis had to wait for his turn.
Had the transfer portal and the one-time transfer exemption been an option early in his career at Colorado, perhaps he would not have been so patient. But, now entering his sixth and final season of college football, Lewis is grateful for the journey he’s taken and the lessons learned.
“I’ve always talked about just trusting the journey, sticking to the script, working hard, no matter what the circumstances,” said Lewis, a returning starter at safety for the Buffaloes. “If I had advice to give to someone it’s just put your head down and work. And at the end of the day, it’s gonna go to who works the hardest. And as one of my coaches out of the Bay Area, Nate Kenion, told me, ‘The cream will rise.”
A Sacramento native who graduated from Granite Bay (Calif.) High School in 2017, Lewis spent three years waiting. He redshirted in 2017 and played a total of 29 defensive snaps from 2018-19.
“(Transferring) was definitely in my mind,” he said. “But for me, I didn’t really see the benefits of what leaving could really do. I was just now getting into the system here, I was finally getting integrated in the playbook. I felt like I was mastering the playbook, as well. I didn’t really see (transferring) as something that I needed to do, especially because I know that the guys who stick around here are the ones who are going to be fighting for each other and we could create a super strong bond over that. So I took that approach.”
Transferring was always an option, but before the spring of 2021, players who transferred had to sit out a full season at their next school or apply for an NCAA waiver. An NCAA rule change in 2021 now allows players to transfer one time without sitting out.
Lewis said he’s never seriously considered leaving CU, and he’s glad he didn’t. He’s got his bachelor’s degree, is working on his master’s, and is now entering his third season as a starter for the football team.
Certainly, everyone’s path is different, but Lewis has seen players who took a different approach and didn’t find what they were seeking after leaving CU.
“A lot of them (who left in previous seasons) weren’t getting their degrees or getting the credentials that they could have gotten here had they just sat down, put their nose in the dirt, and just worked,” he said. “I know what a degree from this school can do, so I went ahead and made the decision to stay.
“I’m a committed person and I like to work hard. I’m a results-driven person. It was more so about getting the work in that I needed to get done and going from there.”
Putting his nose down and working has paid off for Lewis, who is one of the most integral parts of the Buffs’ defense.
“He’s the guy; he’s like the catalyst,” safeties coach Brett Maxie said. “He gets everybody together. They watched film in the offseason. During summer workouts, he was the guy that was driving that. I’m just so delighted to have him and I’m proud of him.”
Lewis finally got an opportunity to shine in 2020 and he ran with it. He was one of CU’s best defenders that year, with 27 tackles, two tackles for loss, and eight pass breakups during the pandemic-shortened season.
“It was awesome, just being able to represent the team and represent the defense is a huge privilege,” he said.
While in high school in 2016, he watched former CU defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thomas and Ahkello Witherspoon shine and couldn’t wait to follow them.
“Those are the guys who I grew up watching from high school, and just kind of wanting to emulate what they did,” he said. “Getting the opportunity to do so through working hard and staying patient, it played out pretty well.”
Last year, Lewis led the Buffs with 79 tackles and added two interceptions.
The other three starters from last year’s secondary all transferred and Lewis is now the only defensive back on the team with significant experience. Being a leader has motivated him as he’s improved this offseason.
“The coaches challenged the players to be leaders and a lot of the veteran guys, if not all of them, accepted that challenge and have done a great job of being a leader,” he said. “Other than that, I wanted to improve my ball skills.”
Healthy and ready to roll, Lewis is eager to put a positive cap on his journey at CU.
“I’m feeling full 100% (healthy),” he said. “We’re getting pretty physical and I’m feeling immaculate, as I describe it to the trainers.”