PITTSBURGH – Mark Ingram of Alabama won the Heisman Trophy a year ago, but he's not the leading returning rusher in the nation. Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis is.
The same Lewis who, at this time a year ago, was competing to be Pitt's starting tailback. He won the job by running for 129 yards and two touchdowns against Youngstown State in the opener, and he kept on running: 190 yards at Buffalo, 158 against Connecticut, 180 at Rutgers, 152 against Notre Dame, 155 at West Virginia, 194 against Cincinnati, 159 against North Carolina State.
In a matter of weeks, Lewis went from being a virtual unknown whose 5-foot-8 size scared away every BCS school except for Pitt to being a modern day version of Tony Dorsett. Dorsett's own assessment of Lewis' 1,799-yard freshman season: "Wow."
Only Dorsett ran for more yards in a season at Pitt than Lewis did, and that was during his 1976 Heisman Trophy season in which he gained 2,150 yards. No doubt Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is thankful he watched that highlight reel of Lewis' long runs at Blair Academy in New Jersey that nearly every other Division I coach managed to overlook, despite Lewis' 14.1 yards per carry average during his final season.
"Dion, man, he was a steal," Pitt tackle Jason Pinkston said.
Now that the 19-year-old Lewis is beginning his second college season, with three new offensive linemen in front of him and a new quarterback, Tino Sunseri, handing him the ball, he keeps being asked what makes him run.
Lewis himself offers a hint of an answer, mentioning he's still the same athlete who had only a couple of major college offers.
"I knew I was talented, I knew I could play and make things happen," Lewis said. "The type of season I had, I didn't expect that much (yardage) but I knew I could go out there and be productive."
Lewis initially showed Pitt's coaches his ability to power through potential tacklers during spring practice in 2009. He enrolled in Pitt nine months before his first college game, and the extra weeks of practices and workouts proved beneficial.
"Dion Lewis is in the mix for 30 carries (a game during the season), in my mind," Wannstedt said that spring.
Wannstedt's early assessment proved to be remarkably accurate. Lewis averaged 27.1 carries per game as Pitt went 10-3, surpassing Dorsett's freshman record of 1,686 yards rushing. Lewis' 47 carries against Cincinnati were a school record, and he was an AP second team All-American.
"Last year, what I did? That's last year," Lewis said as the No. 15 Panthers prepared for Thursday's opener at Utah. "That doesn't mean anything. It's what I do this year, and that's my focus. I'm trying to help my team win, put last year behind me and keep moving forward."
That is what Lewis does best, move forward.
"I expect, if not the same thing as last year, even better," Pitt wide receiver Jon Baldwin said. "He worked so hard in the offseason. He's so powerful, you can put nine men in the box against him and he still can break for a 65-yard run. He's nearly impossible to stop."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham compares Lewis to Oregon State star Jacquizz Rodgers, a third-team All-American while rushing for 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The 5-7 Rodgers, like Lewis, was considered to be undersized coming out of high school.
"He (Lewis) is quick, fast, not great size but he is the same type of back that Jacquizz is," Whittingham said. "He has great vision and balance. He is a powerful runner in regards to his size."
The challenge this season is that opposing defensive coordinators have had an entire offseason, not just a hurried week of pregame preparation, to design schemes to control Lewis. With the unproven Sunseri at quarterback, opponents know that Pitt will lean heavily on Lewis during the early part of the season.
Not that Wannstedt would have it any other way.
Being able to recruit running backs like Lewis is one reason why Wannstedt stays with a pro-style offense that often includes a blocking fullback, Henry Hynoski. The last three seasons, Lewis and LeSean McCoy combined to rush for 4,615 yards; McCoy gained 1,488 yards as a sophomore and 1,328 as a freshman before going to the NFL.
"I think we'll be even better this year," Hynoski said. "That might be hard to believe for some people because we did so well last year. But I think we'll have an even bigger year. We're primed for it."