BEREA – Dion Lewis is trying to gain the trust of his new coaching staff.
Trust that he will pick up the blitz on third down. Trust that he’ll catch the ball. Trust that if No. 1 running back Trent Richardson gets dinged or needs a breather, the backfield will still have a runner capable of carrying the load.
“I feel like every day I’m getting better at the little things and cleaning up the little details and knowing my blocking assignments,” Lewis said Tuesday after practice. “So I feel if I keep doing that, the more the coaches are going to trust me and the more I’ll be able to play.”
Lewis (5-foot-7, 195 pounds) has caught the attention of the coaches through nearly two weeks of training camp. With Richardson limited to individual drills as the team proceeds cautiously with his sore shin and Montario Hardesty and his injured hamstring tendon glued to the stationary bike, Lewis got the bulk of the repetitions with the starters Tuesday as preparation began for the preseason opener Thursday vs. the Rams.
Coach Rob Chudzinski hasn’t ruled out Richardson – he’ll provide an update today – but it seems likely Lewis will be the first Browns back to take a handoff in the preseason.
“He’s had a good camp,” Chudzinski said. “He’s really showing a lot. He’s been a playmaker and shows good vision, running skills, good demonstration of catching the ball. So I’m looking forward to seeing him in the game.”
Richardson is locked in as the starter when he’s healthy. But Lewis has distinguished himself in a crowded backfield heading into the games.
He was an under-the-radar acquisition, arriving April 11 from Philadelphia in a straight-up trade for second-year linebacker Emmanuel Acho. He played 24 games off the bench in two years with the Eagles, rushing 36 times for 171 yards, a 4.8 average and two touchdowns. He added three catches for 21 yards.
“I was there with a great group of backs and unfortunately things didn’t go my way,” Lewis said. “Just kept working hard and now I got a shot to be here and show what I’ve got.”
Lewis can get lost on the field because he’s the shortest of the 90 players. But he’s stood out with his quickness on swing passes and burst through the middle with handoffs.
“I feel like I’ve been doing pretty well, just doing what I’m able to do and showing my ability,” he said. “But I’m just focused on every day trying to get better and better and limiting my mistakes.”
He values his time with the starters, and not just because it’s a sign of status.
“That’s a great defense. Going against them is definitely making me a better player,” he said. “They’re better players. Not that there’s no good players on the second-team defense, but when you go against the first-team defense, they’re revved up a little bit more, so you definitely get a good look against them.”
Assuming Richardson is able to play a full season, Lewis will assume a secondary role. The term change-of-pace back seems invented for him.
“My running style is a lot different than some of the other backs on the team, so I feel like I’ll be able to complement the other guys,” he said. “Trent’s more of a bruiser. He’s a bigger back and runs real hard. We have two completely different styles. I feel like it will be tough on defenses because both our running styles are effective for us and with what we want to do in the offense, we’re both going to bring different things to the table.”
Lewis has made a conscious effort to improve his quickness and receiving skills to fill the change-up role, but he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.
“I feel like I can (carry the ball) a lot or I can just come in and be a change of pace, whatever helps the team win,” he said.
Lewis doesn’t have to worry about Chudzinski labeling him.
“I have been fortunate enough to be around some small guys who were able to carry the load,” he said. “That is an individual thing. I see Dion being effective, not just as your traditional change-of-pace guy where you are always doing stuff outside, but he can run inside. He has good vision and he is a good runner overall. He can fill a number of roles.”
When you’re only 5-7, you better have a separator. For Lewis, it’s his quickness.
“I know I’m way quicker than I am fast,” said Lewis, who ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash before he was drafted in the fifth round out of the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. “A lot of people think I’m a lot faster than I am. But I’ll take it.”
No matter how elusive Lewis is, there’s some contact that can’t be avoided. In order to be trusted to play on third down, he must prove he can keep the blitzing linebackers away from quarterback Brandon Weeden.
“It’s definitely harder than for an average-size running back,” Lewis said. “But I use my size and my ground level to help me with my blocking, just staying low and using my leg power. Blocking is more of a want-to and technique thing.
“That’s what I want to improve most on. I’m not horrible but I’m not great.”
The stigma of his size can be hard to overcome in that area.
“Because if you’re a regular-size back and you miss a block, ‘OK, he missed it,’” Lewis said. “But when you’re a little guy it gets looked at more. I’m trying to limit the blocks I do miss.”
It’s one of the areas in which he hopes to further gain the trust of the coaches during the preseason.
“It’s real important,” he said. “It’s live game action and it’s a lot faster than practice. So these next four games, I’m looking to go out there and work hard and keep trying to get better.”
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