Levi Lewis needed to get his offensive line’s attention.
The University of Louisiana starting quarterback, and unquestioned leader of the Ragin’ Cajuns, looked at the scoreboard and saw his team trailing by two touchdowns. Lewis knew that the big fellas blocking up front needed to be snapped out of their lackluster play.
So Lewis had to smack them around a little bit — literally.
“We were down 21-0 or something Iike that,” Levi remembered. “My offensive line wasn’t doing as well as we had been doing all year. So we got into the huddle and I went down the line and smacked them all in the head to get them excited to play and excited to come back and win the game.”
So what game did Lewis take that tough-love leadership role on this season for UL? Was it on the road at Arkansas State or Georgia Southern? Nope.
That leadership is not even from his time at UL, or for that matter back at Scotlandville Magnet in Baton Rouge — even though it probably has occurred at both stops in Lewis’ football career.
No, that defining moment of Lewis serving as football field general occurred back when Lewis was 10 or 11 years old during a pee wee football game.
“I always wanted to make sure to have everyone do their job,” Levi said. “I always wanted to push people to be better just like I do for myself.”
“That young man is all business,” UL second-year head coach Billy Napier said. “I don’t think he smiled the first two or three months I was here. He’s that guy. He is on a mission. We talk about our team being men on a mission. He is the best example of that we have.”
Natural Born Leader
Lewis, the youngest of four boys, was exposed to team sports at a young age by his parents Greg and Celeste. The reasoning was to keep their son physically active, but also to help him develop the muscles in his left hand that were damaged in an accident when his hand got caught in the wheels of an exercise bike when he was nine months old.
“He was crawling with a cast on,” mother Celeste remembered. “You can still to this day see where the stitches were. He had to wear that cast for two to three months. We wanted him to strengthen up the ligaments so we kept him busy playing baseball, basketball, track and football.”
Lewis’ competitive instincts were developed at an early age on the basketball court in his own backyard where kids from down the street (Lewis lived in the Dixie neighborhood in north Baton Rouge) would be playing with or against Lewis in a game of 21 or 3-on-3.
“I got a best friend named Calvin, he’s really my cousin, and we would go at it,” Levi said. “I knew what I had to do to get at him, rough him a little bit and then talk to him when he was mad. If I come to your backyard I am there to whup you. If you come to my backyard I am going to whup you, too.”
Lewis had the mindset and toughness.
“They had a pee wee championship game and the score was 6-0 all the way to the fourth quarter,” Celeste remembered. “HIs left hand got stepped on. The coaches came down and he was crying so bad. I told him if he just calmed down that he would be okay. Next thing I know he got back in the game and the score was 6-6 and then they won. To see him out there and make the rest of the team believe that they could win was amazing.”
Lewis carried that toughness and leadership into Scotlandville Magnet High School.
Lewis won a pair of state championships in basketball, as he served as the sixth man in 2015 on the Class 5A title team and then again on the 2017 team that defeated Brother Martin for the Division I title. Lewis was also a member of the school’s state championship-winning 4×200-meter relay team.
Even though he might have been only a bench player for the Hornets basketball team, that didn’t prevent Lewis from staying on better players — none more than three-time Farm Bureau/LSWA Mr. Basketball Award winner and future LSU star Javonte Smart.
“That is my brother,” Smart said. “I drank a Coke one time before a game and he didn’t like me drinking Cokes so he got on me about it. He was always on me about doing things that would help me when I grew up and became a young man. I respect him a lot for that.
“He tries to do everything right,” Smart added. “I love the dude.”
“First off, he had posted it on Snapchat or something like that,” Lewis laughed when recounting the story. “I told him that he shouldn’t do that. I had watched a video on what Cokes do to batteries. He would sneak one here and there but he won’t drink one in front of me. Anytime I see him and if he has one in his hand I will slap out of his hand.”
A Special Senior Season
Lewis may have been an established leader on the hardwood and in track and field, but the sport where he truly shined as both athlete and leader was the gridiron.
Lewis’ senior season in 2016 was the epitome of that.
During that 2016 season, the left-handed Lewis passed for 2,450 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 1,577 yards and 23 touchdowns. Lewis, who Evangel head coach Bryon Dawson once compared to Michael Vick, would earn all-state first-team honors at athlete.
“When I first got there and watched this young man and athlete I couldn’t help but be impressed,” Scotlandville offensive coordinator Kris Peters said. “He had a bunch of the tools needed for a quarterback. Strong arm, decisive, and he was elusive. He was kind of plug and play in our spread offense.”
Lewis also guided the Hornets to its first unbeaten regular season as a member of the LHSAA, first district championship since 1970 and its first state championship appearance in nearly five decades.
“Even when I went to the Dome earlier this season (in opener against Mississippi State) it still upset me,” Lewis said. “It hurt me to core that I didn’t want to talk about it. It is every kid’s dream to even play for a championship but to get there and to lose is just — to flop like that it gives you another feeling that nobody can say they know how it feels. They can’t.”
“He was the best leader I ever have coached,” Peters said. “He was always the first one there, and last one to leave. We used to get down in games, and I would say ‘Levi takes us home’ and he would say ‘I got you coach.’ Those guys always believed in him and just not the offensive guys but the defensive guys.”
The Hornets coaching staff and players weren’t the only ones that began to believe in Lewis — so did college recruiters.
Lewis was ranked as a three-star dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports and received scholarship offers from Tulane, Army, UTSA and Iowa State of the Big 12 conference.
Early in the recruiting process, Lewis picked up on the fact his height, he stands at 5-foot-10, might prevent teams from allowing him to play quarterback in college.
“Wake Forest was trying to offer me,” Lewis said. “Coach Peters called me in to his office and said they wanted to do some film on me. After that, the coach wants to see how tall you are on the field. That right there, told me something. My height was going to be an issue. LSU was going to offer me but wanted me to change to wide receiver. But I told them that I wanted to play quarterback.”
UL though had no reservations about offering Lewis a full ride and made him a priority for the 2017 signing class. Lewis didn’t hesitate and signed with the Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Top Ragin’ Cajun
Lewis wasn’t supposed to play, much less start, his freshman season at UL.
Lewis began the 2017 season with the Ragin’ Cajuns as the third-string quarterback behind Jordan Davis and Andre Nunez, and was projected to be redshirted. When both Davis and Nunez suffered injuries, Lewis got his chance to prove what he could do and he took advantage.
Lewis would appear in four games, with three starts, throwing for 377 yards and two touchdowns while running for 175 with one score.
That off-season, UL made a change from Mark Hudspeth and brought in Napier — a former assistant at both Alabama and Clemson. Napier was bringing in his own offense and the quarterback competition would be opened. Nunez would eventually be named the starter, but it didn’t take long for Napier to realize that his young backup quarterback had already became a leader.
“I remember being in front of our team last year and we were having a conversation about players on the team that they respected,” Napier recalled. “I said ‘alright guys, I want everyone for 10 to 15 seconds to think on who is the most respected guy in this huddle right here. I want you to think about who that is.’ I then asked six or seven different guys and all six or seven guys said his name.”
“I just was myself,” Lewis said of that QB competition. “I wasn’t trying to be anyone else. I was just me. When you are yourself then you are confident in what you do. I had no worries. I wasn’t stressed. I just came to practice every day and ready to work. I had something to prove.”
After playing well (585 passing yards, 7 TD) backing up Nunez in 2018, Lewis entered this past off-season as the favorite to win the starter’s job, but he would have to earn it. UL signed two high school stars (Chandler Fields, Clifton McDowell), added a junior college transfer in Jai’Ave Magalei and Maryland transfer Brayden Hawkins.
So how did Lewis handle that?
“Those guys came in and didn’t know our system,” said Lewis, who requested and was granted to wear Brian Mitchell’s retired No. 1 this season. “So I told them if they needed any help or had questions just ask me. I helped them out in the spring and fall camp. Look, at any moment I could go down and then it will be the next man up. It ain’t about me. It is about the team. It is bigger than me.”
“He’s a great leader,” UL offensive lineman Rico Robinson. “He is an even keeled guy. He never get too high or too low. He always tell us not to get too high or too low whether we are up big or if it is a tight situation he always tell us to stay focused on what we need to do.”
Those same programs that may have passed on Lewis due to his lack of size may have some regrets. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Lewis has thrived as the Ragin’ Cajuns starting quarterback this season. Entering Saturday’s game at South Alabama, Lewis has 1,771 yards passing with 14 TDs to only 3 INTs and is completing 66.97 percent of his passes. Lewis also has 115 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground.
Lewis is coming off his best performance as a college quarterback when he completed 26-of-30 passes for 296 yards with 3 touchdowns, while also adding a rushing touchdown against Coastal Carolina last week. His 87.6 completion percentage also set a new single-game record for UL.
“Your level of thinking goes to another level when you are short versus when you are tall,” said Lewis. “You think about all of these other things that can help you out. Everything from pre-snap, post-snap reads, to knowing the DB’s hip angle to where his eyes are is key. When you are connecting the dots, knowing what you are doing then you are playing fast and getting the ball out of your hands. You have to be more detailed oriented when you are shorter.”
“Look if this guy was 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 then he wouldn’t be here,” Napier said. “He’s 5-foot-10 and that is the only thing is he lacking. He has arm talent, he is accurate, he can run, he has bulk with long arms, big hands and big trunk and he process well. He is an excellent quarterback but even better young man.”
“I really don’t have words to explain how much he motivates me to keep going,” said mother Celeste who thinks her son will either become a coach or pastor. “It is overwhelming to see who he is. Every time he comes back home he speaks to kids at the elementary school. He just wants to give back to his neighborhood, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and the entire state of Louisiana. We are so proud of him.”
“That’s just him,” Peters said. “He will come back to Scotlandville and help me coach the quarterbacks. He is going to be a heck of a coach some day.”
In less than three seasons, Lewis has become a play-making starting quarterback and unquestioned leader. So does he feel like he has reached his potential? Not even close.
“I feel like I haven’t been playing my best ball like I have wanted,” Lewis said. “I just need to snap and go off out there. I haven’t done that yet. I know I haven’t because there are so many things I haven’t accomplished yet. That’s what I am striving for. I can also get better.”