INDIANAPOLIS — In his first day at the NFL scouting combine, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan already managed to attract the attention of maybe the league's best coach.
"Jesus," said New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick as he took to the stage and had to look up at the podium microphone pointed several inches above his head. When asked who preceded him in speaking there, Belichick was informed it was the 6-foot-7 Lewan.
Well, that's one way to get notice.
In case that memory isn't lasting, or the Patriots aren't interested in taking a tackle high in the draft, Lewan also has another thing to fall back on: four years of mostly excellent play at one of the more vaunted offensive line factories in college football history. He starred for the Wolverines, riding the ups and downs of the past few seasons, but providing the team with a bedrock left tackle the past few seasons.
A little more than a year ago, Lewan faced the decision of whether to enter the NFL draft, but he chose to return to Ann Arbor and prove himself as one of the premier tackles in college football. Although there is more hype this year for Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Auburn's Greg Robinson at the position, Lewan roundly is regarded as a solid first-round pick who could land in the first 16 picks.
Lewan said the extra year at Michigan was rewarding and worth the risk.
"I think my fundamentals and techniques in pass protection and run blocking have gotten tremendously better,” he said. “As far as the chance of getting hurt, it’s a gamble. That was a gamble, absolutely. I wanted to be with my teammates for one more year. I wanted the opportunity to win the Big Ten championship one more time. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way, but I’m not hurt and I am thrilled to be here now.”
But Lewan also is seeking to clear his name on a few fronts, even if he's not willing to go into the details of an ugly case his name leaked into.
Back in 2009, former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons was "permanently separated" from the school after violating the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy after being accused of raping another student. According to reports, Lewan was accused by the victim of threatening her if she pursued charges, saying, “I’m going to rape her because [Gibbons] didn’t.”
Lewan separated himself from the case but denied he made the alleged comments.
"That’s definitely a situation between those two people," Lewan said. "I am not here to protect Brandon or the young lady. That’s not what I am here to do. I am here to talk about football.
"I can say I never said those things. I’ve said a lot of dumb things in my life, but those are not things that I said. That is a touchy subject. I would never disrespect a woman like that. I consider myself a guy who likes to hold doors, not threaten people."
Another incident sullied Lewan's reputation when he was accused of assault in an incident that occurred after Michigan's loss to Ohio State. The case was closed, then reopened, but Lewan said he did nothing wrong.
“I wasn’t in any fight. I was actually breaking something up. Some guy said I slugged him. That’s not who I am off the field. It’s not the kind of person I am. It might seem that way because of the way I play football, but it’s not who I am.”
Lewan admits that his style of play — "through the whistle," as he said more than once Thursday — might be both a blessing and a curse. Coaches evaluating his tape might like that aggressiveness but also could worry about him being penalty-prone or highly emotional on the field.
"That’s one of my weaknesses, too, as everybody likes to comment on," Lewan said. "But no doubt about it, I like to play through the whistle and do whatever I can to put people in the dirt as much as possible.”
Lewan likely was trying to put Michigan State’s Isaiah Lewis in the dirt when he and Lewan tangled in a helmet-twisting incident on the field. But Lewan, who said he and Lewis now are "good friends," also resists the idea that he's too keyed up on the field.
"I don’t know if I have swagger," he said. "My main focus in my game is to give my running back an opportunity to gain yards and give my quarterback the opportunity to be successful in the pocket. My job doesn’t get many highlights, or stuff like that. I love doing what I do, whether it’s right tackle, left tackle, center or guard. It doesn’t matter as long as I have the opportunity.”
Lewan has taken an interesting route to get here. When he started playing football in third grade, he was a cornerback — and promptly quit the game the next year because he didn't like getting his. Imagine that. After taking it up again, Lewan played some defense but admittedly made a bad nose tackle. Then, his senior season of high school he found his home — left tackle, the position at which he likely will be drafted high at in May.
There might be some teams who don't like Lewan's demeanor, but his sense of humor is obvious. He lamented the fact that he was 22 years old and about to live with his mother while he waits for his first pro paycheck.
"April is going to be a long month," Lewan said.
Lewan also kicked off his press conference by bragging of his resourcefulness with nothing less than a paper clip — an odd request from an NFL team he met with earlier in the day
“I was filmed and asked how many uses [he] can have for a paper clip inside a minute,” he said. “I came up with a baker’s dozen, probably. I was still going when the minute was up.”
Passing that test was no problem. But he ultimately will make his millions based on how well he tangles with opposing defensive linemen, not a pliable paper clip. And, of course, if he can keep his composure while doing so.
Still, Lewan believes his aggressiveness is a strength, and he's banking on a team falling in love with that aspect of his game.
"If I was a coach I’d want every player to play through the whistle every play," he said. "Not dirty or nasty or get personal fouls, but I absolutely want my players to put their guy in the dirt every single play.”
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