Mason's Lewis Is Prepared To Tackle Pro Football

George Mason Center Jai Lewis
Slug: sp/lewis9 Date: 2/09/2005 Photographer: Jonathan Newton/TWP Neg# 164732 Location: Towson, Md. Summary: George Mason center Jai Lewis Caption: George Mason C Jai Lewis relaxes on the court prior to action against Towson. At 6-7 and 275 pounds he is being watched by NFL scouts despite not playing college football. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Thu Feb 10 16:16:06 2005 (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

With the Final Four in the past and graduation day approaching, George Mason senior Jai Lewis is winnowing down his career options.

His prep school basketball coach has received inquiries from European teams about Lewis's interest in playing basketball overseas. "That's my so-called Plan C," Lewis said.

He was invited to last week's pre-NBA draft Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, where he averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds and earned an interview with the Charlotte Bobcats. Playing professional basketball in North America is Plan B.

But with the NFL draft approaching at the end of this month, and with about half the league's 32 teams having expressed interest in the burly forward, a professional football career is, for now, Plan A. So while Lewis recovers from the Patriots' NCAA tournament run and continues working toward a degree in sports management, he is hastily identifying a path toward that goal.

Lewis began meeting with prospective agents this week and hired Jeff Jankovich of Capital Football Associates late last night. Now he will quickly begin working with a personal trainer, concentrating on the sort of football-specific drills that NFL scouts would like to see: a 20-yard shuttle run out of a football stance to display acceleration and flexibility, and a three-cone drill to demonstrate the ability to change directions at full speed while staying low to the ground.

Within the next two weeks, Lewis plans to hold a one-man combine for those scouts, either on George Mason's campus or at a local gym, during which he will perform basic speed and strength tests. The NFL draft begins on April 29, four weeks to the day after Lewis's 13-point, 11-rebound showing in George Mason's national semifinal loss to Florida.

"He has two to three weeks to do what other guys have been preparing for since January 1," Jankovich said. "His times are perhaps not going to be as good as some other guys, his techniques might not be as good, but they're looking for the burst, the speed, the strength. Technique, they can teach him. . . . The fact that scouts have come to look at him tells you something. They found him, and that means a lot."

Roughly 10 NFL teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, have contacted Lewis directly, asking questions about his background in football and his life away from athletics. Several more, including the Washington Redskins, have spoken with George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga.

"I think one of the objectives of any professional organization is to find diamonds in the rough, what they affectionately call 'sleepers,' somebody that no one else knows about," Larranaga said. "Jai Lewis is as talented an athlete as I've ever been around. His hand quickness and foot quickness are incredible. If I were an NFL scout, I'd be giving him very, very serious consideration."

The Chicago Bears sent a representative to a George Mason game during Lewis's junior year, soon after Lewis and Larranaga fired off letters to all 32 NFL teams laying out the 6-foot-7 forward's football aspirations. The Buffalo Bills sent a scout to a team workout this fall, before the Patriots' season even started, and have stayed in regular contact with Larranaga. The Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars sent representatives to games. All this for a 23-year-old prospect who has not played a down of football in more than five years.

"Playing basketball for the last four years and not having any college experience in football, at first I just thought a couple teams would show a little interest," Lewis said this week. "But having so many teams call, the door is just opening wider and wider, and I think it's possible I could play."

Such an option elicits inevitable comparisons to Antonio Gates, comparisons Lewis has heard many times. The former power forward at Kent State never played college football, and as a senior he led his basketball team to the region final in the 2002 NCAA tournament before switching sports. He has made two consecutive Pro Bowls as a tight end with the San Diego Chargers.

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