Wide open spaces.
That’s where Claytin Lewis does the most damage, and the St. Augustine’s newcomer has done plenty already in 2014.
Lewis, 21, is actually in his third year at the university, but this is his first season on the football squad.
It hasn’t taken long for the track star to transfer his talents: Lewis ranks second in NCAA Division II for all-purpose yardage per game (206.6). Through six weeks, Lewis has been electric. As a receiver, he’s racked up 22 catches for 515 yards and four touchdowns. As a return specialist, he’s taken 21 kickoffs 507 yards in the opposite direction.
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The 5-foot-10, 175-pound speedster exudes a quiet confidence. He cracks a bit of a knowing smile when talking about his four Rookie of the Week honors from the CIAA.
The newcomer is not even remotely surprised by his early success.
“Hey, Claytin, can you do those?” a teammate asks, gesturing to a group of track runners warming up on practice hurdles just to the side of the football field at the George Williams Athletic Complex.
“Yeah, man,” Lewis said. “Used to do them every day.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon. The track team is warming up, stretching and engaging in assorted exercises.
Lewis is one of the track team’s most talented sprinters. He runs the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. He’s even competitive in the 400 hurdles. On this particular afternoon, however, he’s strapped up in football gear.
“I’ve been running track (at St. Augustine’s) for three years,” Lewis said. “I knew most of the (football) team here already.”
Athletics director and legendary track and field coach George Williams, after whom the athletic complex is named, is more familiar with Lewis’ athletic bloodline than anyone. Williams, who has accrued 35 national championships since 1976, also coached Lewis’ mother, Bernita, in the mid-1980s.
“He’s a great athlete,” Williams said. “He has a lot of heart. He has a lot of talent, which he earned from his parents.”
It didn’t take much for a football team that finished 4-6 last season to embrace all that Lewis could offer.
“Very excited,” said Lewis when asked how the team responded to his arrival. “A track runner playing football, you know what I’m saying?”
A ‘special’ talent
Interim footballcoach Michael Morand stands a few yards away, watching Lewis and the rest of the Falcons’ helmetless skill-position players practice end-zone routes.
Lewis has four touchdowns this season, and Morand is well aware of the impact that has for his team.
“He’s special,” Morand said. “You don’t find too many individuals who have that type of speed and can catch, as well as a good returner.”
He honed his ability under unique circumstances. Lewis was kicked out of Southeast Raleigh High and landed briefly at a reform school, then quickly transferred to Word of God Christian, where he played eight-man football.
“It helped me work on my game, outrunning people,” Lewis said. “The field is moved in a lot closer.”
Based on his early production, it didn’t take long for Lewis to readjust to the game he first began playing at 5 years old. The transition was so smooth that Falcons quarterback Cyril Davis had no idea about Lewis’ unusual development.
“I just heard that now,” Davis said.
“Football is football,” Lewis said.
Expanding the role
Lewis’ speed can change games. He did that against Chowan Sept. 27 when he caught six passes for 216 yards and two TDs during a 33-31 win.
He scored the game-winner with less than three minutes to play, blowing the top off the defense for 66 yards. Last week, he added a 21-yard TD catch to help St. Augustine earn its second win.
That’s the type of talent teams envy at the next level, according to Morand.
“Oh, he can play on Sundays,” said Morand, who worked in the Philadelphia Eagles’ scouting department this past summer. “His change of direction, his burst is explosive. He runs a 4.2 (40-yard dash), and there’s not many guys that can run that fast.”
Williams went even further, calling Lewis a “once in a lifetime” athlete. That’s why Morand, also the offensive coordinator, is force-feeding Lewis the ball in space as much as possible.
“He’s our go-to guy,” Morand said.
The road to the end zone hasn’t been completely smooth. High school certainly wasn’t. And Lewis missed the Week 3 matchup against Stillman for an undisclosed “disciplinary action.”
Lewis described it as another adverse situation he’s had to overcome. When he’s on the field, eluding defenders, everything else fades into the background. He envisions himself as the next Percy Harvin.
When asked to sum up his game in just one word, Lewis does not hesitate.