He had been one of the top wide receiver prospects in the country coming out of high school, and when he got to Penn State last summer, he made an immediate impression on the coaching staff with his pass-catching prowess. Whenever the ball was thrown in his direction, he came down with it.
But there was one thing that Eugene Lewis didn't see coming: the coaches' decision to hold him out of action his freshman year.
"I wasn't expecting it at first," Lewis said. "But I realized that they want the best thing for me. They knew what was right, they knew what they had to do, and I'm glad they did it."
Lewis is getting set to make his debut this fall, and it should be an exciting one for Penn State. While the Nittany Lions have an abundance of returning talent at wide receiver and tight end - those areas may, in fact, be the deepest on the team - there's always room for another talented pass-catcher in Bill O'Brien's offensive scheme, and Lewis certainly fits that description, especially after a year of behind-the-scenes refinement.
The coaches have been gushing about the 6-foot-1, 201-pound redshirt freshman ever since he arrived on campus a year ago. Receivers coach Stan Hixon said last fall that his athletic ability "is off the charts," adding that the coaches thought long and hard about whether to get him on the field immediately before making their decision a few games into the season. "Eugene Lewis is a player [for whom] we really had high expectations," Hixon said. "And the more we saw of him, he really didn't disappoint us."
O'Brien has been pleased not only with Lewis's athleticism but his attitude. "What a fantastic kid," he said following spring practice. "You talk about a guy who's got a smile on his face every day. He's done everything we have asked him to do. This guy was a high school quarterback, and we're asking him to play receiver in a fairly complex offense, to recognize coverages and how change routes versus different coverages."
Lewis grew up in Plymouth, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre. The son of Eugene Lewis Sr., a talented basketball player who played at Pitt for a season before transferring to the University of South Alabama, Lewis developed into a skilled multisport athlete at Wyoming Valley West High, starring on the football and basketball teams. He played wideout as a sophomore, but was moved to quarterback the following year and took to the new position right away. As a junior, he produced 30 touchdowns - 18 rushing, 12 passing. As a senior, he ran for 1,534 yards and 28 touchdowns while throwing for 1,012 yards and 10 touchdowns. He went on to win first-team Class AAAA All-State recognition and was a consensus four-star recruit.
Despite his success as a dual-threat quarterback, all the schools that were recruiting Lewis - and there were plenty - wanted him as a wideout. He committed to Penn State in August 2011 and stayed committed through the upheaval that followed the end of the Paterno era.
When preseason practice began, he quickly established himself as one of the team's most promising young players. But the returning wideouts were doing OK when the season began - and in Allen Robinson's case, a whole lot better than OK - and the coaching staff knew it was going to need to manage its roster with an eye toward the future given the scholarship limitations the NCAA had imposed, and so the decision was made to hold him out.
It wasn't Lewis's first choice, but he accepted the decision without complaint. Playing on the scout team - or the "Dirty Show" as it's come to be known under O'Brien - helped him understand that he still had work to do as he transitioned both to the college game and to a new position. "I realized I had a lot of things that I needed to work on," he said. "At the end of the day, I knew it was going to help me, so I'm grateful for that redshirt."
Lewis concentrated on his route running and learned how to disengage from press coverage. He approached his work on the scout team as a chance to show what he had learned and to make an impression on the coaching staff. Which, by all accounts, he did. "When you're on the Dirty Show, you just want to make plays," Lewis said. "You're going against the first defense, so if you can do it against the first defense that we had last year, then you know things are going well."
Even without Lewis, things went spectacularly well for Penn State's wide receivers last fall. Robinson led the Big Ten with 77 catches for 1,013 yards and was named the league's Receiver of the Year, while Brandon Moseby-Felder came on strong in the second half of the season, averaging 3.6 receptions and 52.6 yards in Penn State's final seven games. They're both back this fall, as are reserves Matt Zanellato and Alex Kenney. Throw in one of the better tight end contingents in the country and a tailback who started out his career at wideout (Bill Belton), and the Nittany Lions have plenty of options in the passing game.
"We've got a lot of guys coming back, and a lot of young guys coming up," Lewis said. "I'm really excited for this season."
After sitting out last fall, Lewis made his Beaver Stadium debut this past April in the Blue-White Game. It wasn't a breakthrough performance - he finished the game with one catch for 8 yards - but it was another step toward his real debut, the one he'll make on Aug. 31 when Penn State opens its season against Syracuse. Lewis is eager for that day to arrive, and so is O'Brien.
"I can't say enough about him," the second-year coach said. "I think he's got an excellent future here at Penn State, and I love coaching him."