IN FOCUS: Offensive Guard Damien Lewis
When he first met Damien Lewis, Lloyd Cushenberry struggled to get a read on his new teammate.
Cushenberry could see the massive frame, the bulging biceps and muscular chest that allows Lewis to crank out 80 push-ups in a row and throw nearly 500 pounds skyward on the bench press. He could see the physical tools that would, eventually, transform Lewis into an All-SEC guard who spent his junior season next to Cushenberry on the Tiger offensive line mauling defenders.
But he couldn’t see his eyes, and he couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“He always walked around with his dreads in front of his eyes,” Cushenberry laughs. “I never saw his eyes until we got to practice. And he didn’t really talk to us.
“But the first day of practice, we were doing one-on-ones, and he’s just pancaking everyone.”
Cushenberry quickly realized what the rest of the SEC would learn in Lewis’ first season in the trenches, and what Breiden Fehoko summed up succinctly enough: “He’s an animal.”
Lewis’ emergence from junior college transfer to preseason All-SEC road grader was as quiet as he is. That’s, in part, because he’s less interested in hype and more interested in flattening defenders, more prone to paving paths for LSU’s running backs to scamper through than he is to singing his own praises in media sessions.
That doesn’t mean others aren’t happy to provide the hype for him. Offensive line coach James Cregg, who joined LSU from the San Diego Chargers, told a reporter last fall Lewis was so good, he would’ve played for him in the NFL in 2017.
“He’s as good as I’ve seen,” Cregg said. “He’s a man.”
Fehoko, who has spent the past two seasons battling Lewis in practice, agrees.
“We’re blessed to have him as a player,” Fehoko says. “He’s a great guy off the field, real quiet, kinda keeps to himself. Once he buckles up that chin strap, you see flashes of dominance.”
Lewis’ play speaks for itself. Quantifying value statistically along the offensive line can be difficult, but Lewis graded out first in the SEC and ninth nationally among guards last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed just a single sack in 481 pass blocking attempts, a 99.8 percent success rate.
Meanwhile, the Tigers averaged 5.0 yards per carry running between Lewis and Cushenberry, picking up 322 yards on 65 carries in the center-right guard gap.
“Damien, he brings it every day,” says Cushenberry. “You know what you’re going to get from Damien every day. He’s consistent. And he wants to win. All summer we worked. We talked about things we want to do, not only individually, but as a team. And he’s all for the team.”
Underneath Lewis’ quiet, dominant physical exterior is a quick, facile mind. Cregg says he picks up concepts incredibly quickly, translating instruction to execution with impressive aptitude. He’s a technician who knows how to use his strength to his advantage.
“He can process things quick,” Cregg said at the Fiesta Bowl in December. “I’ve just been really pleased with where he’s come with his football. He’s just a great technician. He thrives on it. And that’s where he wins. It’s all technique. And his work ethic is tremendous.”
Lewis is fueled in equal parts by where he is and where he came from. A native of Canton, Miss., a town of just 13,000 people, 75 percent of whom live below the poverty line, Lewis played on a high school team that featured only 25 players.
Undersized (for a lineman) and overlooked, he attended Northwest Mississippi Community College without receiving a single D1 offer. There, he bulked up 40 pounds, adding muscle by living in the weight room.
“I shut the weight room down,” he jokes. “I’d get in there and lift a bull.”
He also shut down the classroom, studying his tail off to earn NJCAA All-Academic team honors. Success in both venues caught the eye of LSU – his “dream school,” he says.
The same factor pushes him, with books or ball: the thrill of competition.
“You’ve got to compete every day,” Lewis says. “It takes a man to come in and compete for a job. I just like competition.”
“He just wants to be the best every day,” Cushenberry adds. “He’s always competitive.”