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College football: NIU's Lewis keeping opponents on their toes

Idaho defensive end Quinton Bradley dives but comes up empty trying to tackle Northern Illinois wide receiver Tommylee Lewis last Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.
Idaho defensive end Quinton Bradley dives but comes up empty trying to tackle Northern Illinois wide receiver Tommylee Lewis last Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.

DEKALB – Northern Illinois linebacker Rasheen Lemon knows why opponents get caught off guard by teammate Tommylee Lewis. And he’s pretty sure they dislike trying to bring down Lewis as much as he did.

“I remember those Sunday practices,” Lemon said, recalling their freshman season. “We had to go against him all the time. I hated trying to tackle him. He’s so shifty. You don’t know what he’s about to do when he has the ball in his hands.”

The frequency the ball is placed in Lewis’ trusty hands has increased, and that’s likely to continue if he keeps opposing defenses off balance the way he has this season for the Huskies (2-0).

His versatility, along with quarterback Jordan Lynch’s running and passing skills, perplexes opponents. Both rushed for more than 100 yards last weekend at Idaho.

The Huskies need as many options as they can come up with Saturday to stay with Eastern Illinois. The Panthers (3-0), ranked No. 8 in The Sports Network’s FCS poll and No. 10 in the coaches poll, average 631.3 yards of offense.

Lewis, a junior, leads the Huskies with 138 yards on 14 receptions – and that’s after missing most of the second half of the opener at Iowa with an ankle injury. He’s second on the team in rushing behind Lynch with 108 yards on five carries.

Four of the rushes – for 104 yards – came against Idaho. He also caught five passes for 82 yards in the 45-35 victory.

“He’s earned the right to have the ball in his hands,” coach Rod Carey said. “He can run it. He can catch it. He can catch it and then run with it. He can return kicks. It’s really rare. When you find a guy like that, you use him.”

Last season, Lewis ranked second on the team in receiving behind All-MAC performer Martel Moore with 48 catches for 539 yards and five touchdowns.

“He’s one of the most elusive people I’ve ever seen,” running back Keith Harris Jr. said. “In high school, you see a lot of elusive people, but they don’t transfer it to college because everybody becomes the same speed as you.”

Moving into the No. 1 receiver role was the prize Lewis said he kept in focus. He came to NIU from Riviera Beach, Fla., where he was the area’s fifth-leading receiver as a senior. But listed at 5-foot-7, he didn’t draw much interest from the traditional powers.

“I feel really confident,” he said. “You come to college as a freshman, you plan on being that guy eventually. That’s the goal: to be a go-to guy who can help the team out. I’ve improved being a little more consistent and more dependable.”

Carey said the transition has gone as expected.

“His timing with Jordan is better,” he said. “He’s always had the footwork. He’s always had the crispness. Now he’s doing it more consistently.”

For Lewis, multitasking is simple on the football field.

“It’s just fun to have the ball in my hands,” he said.

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