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Jon Lewis called it being in the moment.
The Birmingham-Southern running back didn’t keep a running tally of his rushing yards during last Saturday’s 42-21 win over visiting Centre College. Good thing, because he would have needed a calculator.
Tony Joe White, the Birmingham-Southern head coach, had a good view of what was going on. He also didn’t know exactly just how special of a night it was for his running back and his team’s running game.
“I don’t remember when it was in the game, but he broke off a 90-yard run,” White said. “Now, there were many times where the holes opened up so big that I almost think I could have run 100 yards. He was about halfway down the field on the 90-yard run and I said in the phones to the other coaches on offense, ‘He’s going to have 300 yards tonight.’”
The final tally was 341 yards on 13 carries. No Birmingham-Southern running back has ever gained more rushing yards in a game. Only one Division III player – Lakeland’s Jatron Bevly – has rushed for more yards in a game this season. Bevly had 343 yards on 17 carries earlier in the year. Lewis had touchdown runs of 36, 76, 14 and 90 yards and averaged 26.2 yards per carry.
“You just go one play at a time,” Lewis said. “One breaks and it keeps breaking. It’s like a domino effect, I guess. It was just being in the moment.”
As a team, the Panthers had 516 yards rushing against a Centre College defense that has been good against the run. The most yards Centre College allowed on the ground before last week was 234. Four opponents finished under 100 yards rushing with Rhodes College having minus-2 and Sewanee 16.
“It was a special deal,” White said. “He’ll be the first one to tell you that he had some holes where he was completely untouched for about 30 yards, before a defensive back could get an angle and try to cut him back or whatever. Our offensive line did a phenomenal job of setting that thing up and allowing him to get the ball through those gaping holes.”
Lewis agreed with that assessment.
“That’s the best o-line in the nation, I keep telling them that,” Lewis said. “They’re wonderful. They do their job, execute and that’s what happens.”
This was supposed to be a transition year for the 5-foot-10, 194-pound sophomore from just outside Nashville. He flashed his big-time potential as a true freshman, rushing for 563 yards on 59 carries with seven touchdowns, including an 81-yard burst. But, he was playing behind two-time All-American Robert Shufford and explosive senior Tavion Fleming.
The transition year turned into much more, despite what some would perceive as pressure of replacing a running back as accomplished as Shufford.
"If anything I put pressure on myself,” Lewis explained. “I always put pressure on myself, in whatever I do. Once you get into the game, it’s just more of a fun atmosphere.”
Lewis had 199 yards in his first game as a starter. That was just the beginning of a special season. Lewis currently leads Division III in rushing yards per game (159) and total rushing yards (1,431). He’s tied for third with 17 rushing touchdowns, which is one behind the co-leaders, and eighth in yards per carry (7.23).
“This isn’t really a big surprise,” Lewis said. “I’ve told a lot of people, I think he’ll be just as good as Shufford when it’s all said and done. It happened a little bit earlier than we expected.”
Lewis did big things in high school at Donelon Christian Academy in Hermitage, Tennessee. He was a two-time all-state player and finalist for 2A Mr. Football as a senior. Lewis said FCS schools recruited him but none offered a scholarship. White said the BSC offensive coordinator Anthony Colucci, who recruits the Nashville area, found out about Lewis but coaches weren’t allowed to visit the schools because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“We got his stuff, we looked at it and felt like he was something special,” White said.
White said the key to Lewis meeting those expectations has been his work ethic.
“He's probably the hardest working player on our team,” White said. “He loves to lift, he loves to work out. Before practice every day, he’s over working tennis balls, developing his hands. He’s a servant leader. He sets up dummies and drills ahead of practice, just to make sure everything is out there and ready to go. I think, a lot of times, our players, they see that and when one of your top players is that guy, the hardest worker, that’s contagious.”
Now, the focus for Lewis and his teammates is finding a way into the playoffs. In Division III, the champions of the 27 conferences are automatic qualifiers in the 32-team field. The other five spots are given at-large entrants. The Panthers will need an at-large berth, finishing second in the Southern Athletic Association to Trinity College, which beat BSC on a 43-yard fourth-down touchdown pass with 13 seconds left in the game.
White feels the Panthers are well-positioned to get one of the five spots if they win Saturday’s regular season finale at Rhodes College.
For Lewis, doing that means putting last week in the mirror and trying to create another memorable outing.
“The job is not finished,” Lewis said. “We got another game coming in this Saturday. We’re trying to finish out the season strong, get a surge for the playoffs.”
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