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Pitt running back Dion Lewis looks to build on his breakout freshman season.

Spring and summer 2009 was a questionable time for the Pittsburgh Panthers football team, in particular for a seemingly decimated ground game.

Water cooler talk about the Panthers running game a year ago centered on the massive void left by the departure of LeSean “Shady” McCoy, who bolted early for the NFL, and the trio of unknown freshmen who were battling to replace his spot in the backfield.

“Obviously you didn't see anybody capable of putting up the numbers Shady did coming into the season,” Pitt running backs coach David Walker says today. “We had to work with three freshmen, and that is difficult from any standpoint –brand new personnel to the ground game, regardless.”

The leading candidate to replace McCoy was a pocket-sized scat-back from Blair Academy in New Jersey who, despite rushing for over 1,200 yards and 23 touchdowns on just 88 carries as a senior, didn’t exactly project the kind of physical presence that inspired confidence to most casual observers.

Dion LewisIt was hard to blame Pitt fans if they were caught day-dreaming about “what-if” the now-departed McCoy had remained in a blue and gold uniform for just one more season.

“You were replacing a really good running back, and those were big shoes to fill. Just being mentioned in the same breath, maybe helping this team win games like Shady did would have been enough,” said Dion Lewis, who ultimately won the starting job.

A whopping 1,799 yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, Sporting News National Freshman of the Year, Big East Offensive Player of the Year, Meineke Car Care Bowl MVP and a slew of other awards and shattered records later, Lewis’ idea of doing “enough” turned into quite an understatement.

“If you would have asked anybody at the beginning of the year if he was capable of doing those things, we all would have said no,” said Walker. “As it was, he was able to produce. The bigger the game, the better he played.”

Lewis punched in ten 100-yard games, including 159 yards against North Carolina in Pitt’s bowl game and a career-high 194 yards on a school-record 47 carries in Pitt’s 45-44 loss to Cincinnati for the Big East crown.

“When we played him, it was a whole different level of speed and quickness than we were used to,” said N.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Archer, whose Wolfpack defeated Lewis’ Panthers 38-31 last fall. “The one thing that our guys kept telling me on the headset was that they couldn't see him. They had trouble finding him because Pitt's offensive line was so big, and Dion's not the biggest guy in the world. Then all of a sudden when he showed up, he was so quick and so powerful that they really weren't prepared for that quickness, speed and slashing ability.”

Lewis rushed for 95 yards, scoring two touchdowns, but quickly made a believer out of Archer, who also served as linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996-2002.

“What Dion's got is that ability to make people miss,” Archer said. “He also has that after-contact ability to make 2-3 more yards. To me, that is what sets him apart from other college backs. I mean, that's the difference between you getting the first down and losing the ball. Just an impressive all-around game he displays.”

Dion LewisWhile Lewis has already captured the imagination of fans and the respect of coaches, there is still much in store for the Big East's premier back as he prepares to enter his sophomore campaign.

With the pressure of following up a record-breaking freshman year come the obstacles of losing three offensive linemen and two tight ends, the responsibility of handling a leadership role, dousing the constant heat of fame and success, and the inevitable questions about the NFL.

“Dion is a leader and he makes the offensive line's job that much easier,” said former Pitt guard John Malecki, currently playing for the Tennessee Titans. “He's a guy you can rely on, a guy you want to block for, and just a teammate that I think a winning team has to have.”

Walker adds to Malecki's thoughts.

“He takes it all in stride, which is one of the better things about him,” said Walker. “He's a humble guy. He's a really good teammate. I think the other players on the team are happy he's had this success because of the type of guy he is.”

Humble is a word often used to describe Lewis, but humility can be difficult to maintain when fans, experts, and even NFL executives set a ceiling so high that terms like “Heisman-favorite” and “record-breaking” are nothing more than faint praise.

Former Detroit Lions president and CEO Matt Millen, a 12-year NFL veteran, went so far as to compare Lewis to Hall of Fame tailback Barry Sanders.

While Archer wasn’t ready to go that far, he did understand Millen’s heady comparison.

“When I watched Dion on film the week before we played him, and when I coached with the Steelers and we played against Barry Sanders, I noticed a lot of similarities off the bat,” Archer admitted. “But he's not Barry Sanders. Let's not go there just yet. We're talking about arguably the best running back to play the game in Barry.”

Lewis takes such praise in stride.

“It means a lot to me when I hear myself compared to a player like Barry Sanders, but I think I have a long way to go before I reach my maximum potential, and fall in a category like that.”

Coming into this season, Lewis is being viewed by most experts as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, while the Sporting News referred to him as “the game's most complete runner.”

“I hear talk about it, and I think about it from time-to-time,” Lewis said, acknowledging the Heisman hype. “But you know, the team has to be successful first. An undefeated season, a one-loss season, winning a big bowl game. That's just another reason to put the team first, and the more success the team has, the more success the individual players on that team will have.”

Dion LewisLewis knows his stuff – the last 18 Heisman winners came from a top-five nationally ranked team.

“The (Heisman) award is going to be given to the quarterback or tailback for a team who is in the top five. That's what that award is,” Walker said. “It's nice, preseason-wise, to be in the discussion; but at the end of the season, regardless of stats, that award is going to a key player from a top five team. I'm not downplaying the Heisman Trophy, but sometimes that award goes to a player who wasn't even the best on his team, let alone in the country.

“Now, if you want to talk about the Doak Walker award, an award for being the best running back, then that is a different animal,” Walker continued. “I think that award has a little more honesty, in my opinion.”

No award, however, will be greater than that of reaching the next level—the NFL—and that is exactly where Dion Lewis is destined. It is all just a matter of what route he will take: Shady McCoy's quick path, or Tim Tebow’s four-year plan.

“I never really think too much about the NFL, because I'm still in college now, and I'm still young,” Lewis said. “I feel like I need to finish business here and win a championship. The NFL is a long-shot for me right now. I'm just thinking about how much I want to win a Big East Championship and a National Championship. That's all that is on my mind right now – this year.”

But one year can change the course of a lifetime.

For Dion Lewis, one year gave him fame, success on and off the football field, respect, and the title of one of college football's premier tailbacks.

And for his fans, of course, one year eliminated a lot of that skepticism around the water cooler.

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