TEMPE, Ariz. -- “I’m just ready to go out there and prove what I can do.”
It has been quite some time since Arizona State running back Deantre Lewis could say that, and hearing those words from him now comes as music to the ears of Sun Devil Nation.
Lewis burst onto the scene as a true freshman for the Sun Devils in 2010, showing off a burst and game-breaking ability not seen in Tempe since the days of J.R. Redmond. With a talented core group of players returning, expectations for both Lewis and ASU were sky-high heading into the 2011 season.
Sadly, it all changed in an instant.
Two months after the season ended, Lewis was at a relative’s house in Riverside, Calif. when he was shot by a stray bullet. Since that day, his road to recovery has been arduous and by at times in doubt.
Now more than two years later, that fateful moment is never far from Lewis’ mind.
“I think about it every single day,” said Lewis. “I wake up and think about what if this didn’t happen, or if that didn’t happen. All I can think about is what my aunt told me. You have to keep looking forward. What happens in the past is in the past. It happened for a reason. There is something about it. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Facing such difficult and unexpected circumstances, Lewis initially battled with thoughts of giving up the game that he loves.
“I’ve had that all the time,” Lewis said of those doubts. “It was a struggle getting healthy again, and learning how to walk again because the muscles wouldn’t work. I always thought that if I just give up, I’d have an excuse. But then I thought that it wasn’t something that I want to do. Giving up is too easy.”
The injury forced Lewis to take a redshirt during the 2011 season. He returned last season to see spot duty in nine games, including a stint as a defensive back due to a depleted depth chart in the secondary. He carried the ball 11 times for 39 yards and made four tackles.
However, the explosiveness that defined him as a player in 2010 was not yet back. Undeterred, Lewis continued to battle and put in the hard work that was necessary. It’s a journey that Lewis feels he could not have done were it not for his teammates and coaches.
“It’s awesome,” said Lewis of the support. “They kept me going. They always told me to push myself everyday and it will get better. There are days that it jumps up, and there are days that it falls back. Both coaching staffs were supporting me through everything.”
Having conducted his rehab through the course of two different coaching regimes, Lewis has seen a stark difference in how those staffs approached his recovery. He credits current head coach Todd Graham’s intensity for helping him to turn the corner and reach the point where he is now.
“Coach Erickson’s staff laid back off me and let me do what I wanted to do,” Lewis said. “That was the mental part of my rehab. At first, I didn’t want to do anything after getting shot and getting out of the hospital. When Coach Graham came, he forced me into playing. That excited me, because he wants me to play. It’s something that I want to do. Forcing me to play has helped my leg tremendously.”
The gains made by Lewis since the end of last season were apparent during the spring, when he was one of the team’s standouts during practice. His speed, agility, and explosiveness were all near the pre-injury levels.
“I’ve progressed a lot,” Lewis said of his spring. “From a physical standpoint, mentally, I feel like I’m already there. I can’t wait for fall camp.”
Does that mean he is back to his freshman form? Lewis can’t say, as he is only looking towards the future.
“I don’t remember how that felt,” Lewis said of his pre-injury self. “But I can tell you that I feel invincible at this point in time.”
Lewis’ play during spring football impressed new running backs coach Bo Graham. After watching Lewis work, Graham senses a return of the 2010 version of Lewis who tallied 909 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns, all while averaging nearly eight yards per touch.
“He can be a guy in the backfield and he can also split wide,” said Graham. “He's athletic enough to run vertical routes, and win the one-on-ones in space. He's a guy that can do a lot of different things for us.”
With Lewis returning to form, it gives ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell some very intriguing options. Norvell already has arguably the Pac-12's top running back combo in Marion Grice and D.J. Foster. That duo combined for 2,130 yards from scrimmage and 25 touchdowns and have proven that they can terrorize defenses in multiple ways. Adding a healthy Lewis to that mix would create the stuff of nightmares for opposing Pac-12 defenses.
“We are very smart backs,” Lewis said of the trio. “We know what we have to do at certain times. We all have different skills. I would be the speed guy, Marion is smooth, and D.J. can make anyone miss in the open field. It’s something you don’t see every day in college football.”
Given the versatile talent in the backfield, the coaching staff is devising ways to feature all three players simultaneously.
“The coaches talk about it all the time about how they’re going to get all three of us on the field and how they are going to keep it that way,” said Lewis. “That’s being a threat to the endzone all of the time. It’s nice that our offensive coordinator is thinking that way.”
The receiving ability of all three backs is a major plus for a Sun Devil offense that features significant questions at wide receiver. After the position struggled mightily in 2012, the team signed five receivers in this year’s class. While bringing a load of talent to Tempe, that fivesome will take time to learn the offense, and Lewis knows that he and his fellow running backs will be called upon to ease the transition.
“The offensive coordinator actually said that we may have to play wide out more than we usually would do because we have a bunch of guys coming in who have to learn the offense,” said Lewis. “It’s something that we challenged ourselves this offseason to get better at.”
While his attention is on the present and future, Lewis does make one concession to the past.
After wearing No. 5 and No. 3 over the last two seasons, Lewis is switching back to the No. 25 that he wore during his freshman year at ASU. In an interesting twist, both Lewis and Graham came to the idea simultaneously.
“I was at my high school during the summer break, and I was looking at old pictures and 25 stuck in my head,” said Lewis. “As I was going through my pictures of 25, I was thinking of texting Coach Graham about going back to 25. At that moment, he text me ‘What do you think about going back to 25?’ I was more than happy to go back.”
With his renewed confidence, Lewis believes he and his teammates are primed to make a run at the ultimate prize this fall.
“We always think Rose Bowl. We believe we have the team to do it,” said Lewis. “We’ve trained hard this offseason to achieve that. Everyone is working hard, pushing each other, not letting each other give up. I believe we came together this offseason as a group.”
For himself, Lewis has set just one simple goal for 2013.
“Prove to college football that I’m back. My talent out there is something special.”