For GMU's Lewis, It's a Whole New Ballgame

George Mason's Jai Lewis, less than three weeks after playing in the Final Four, performs agility drills for NFL scouts.
George Mason's Jai Lewis, less than three weeks after playing in the Final Four, performs agility drills for NFL scouts. (Photos By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

Over the past four years, as Jai Lewis played more men's basketball games than anyone in George Mason history, teammates and opponents said he looked like a football player. Yesterday, with clipboard-toting representatives from 11 NFL teams watching his every move in an Alexandria gym, Lewis was dressed like a basketball player, from his green George Mason shorts to his high-top sneakers.

"Why is he running in his Carmelo Anthony basketball shoes?" groaned Lamar Butler, a starter from the Patriots' Final Four team on hand to watch his teammate take another step toward a possible career in the NFL.

Footwear aside, several scouts said Lewis showed enough potential during an 80-minute workout at Velocity Sports Performance to keep his football dreams alive. Lewis ran the 40-yard dash in approximately 5.0 seconds, not brilliant but a considerable improvement over the 5.18 seconds he recorded last week, when he first began the transition back to a sport he had not played since his senior year at Aberdeen High in Harford County, Md. He finished a 20-yard shuttle drill in approximately 4.6 seconds, in line with the goals Velocity's director of athlete development, Walt Cline, described before the combine.

Lewis wrangled with Cincinnati Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes during a series of positional drills, shuffled back and forth with Washington Redskins assistant coach Mike Rutenberg, caught a few dozen passes and dropped several more while five television crews jockeyed for position with a mob of scouts and trainers.

"It's just like being out there in the Final Four with 40,000 people watching," Lewis said. "Now there's only [11], but all their eyes are on you, so it's pretty much the same."

After shaking hands with the scouts and talking to the media, Lewis quickly showered and departed with Hayes for a flight to Cincinnati and another round of interviews and measurements.

"Everyone has to understand one thing: This kid's been doing this only for a week," said Hayes, a former NFL tight end who led most of the football exercises yesterday. "Obviously, the drills are going to be a little rusty, not look always the way you want them to, just because he hasn't done the drills. But the thing he has done is been an athlete for four years, and a damn good one, so that's where sometimes he can catch up on the learning curve. . . . I think he has the willingness. Now we'll see where it goes from there."

Lewis and his representatives had considered postponing formal workouts until after next weekend's draft, allowing more time for Lewis to work on his speed and power before attempting to latch on with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. But agent Jeff Jankovich decided that after five years away from football, Lewis needed to demonstrate his potential as quickly as possible, so Lewis took several written tests yesterday morning and began his workout shortly before 1 p.m.

"The feedback from scouts was we made the right decision," Jankovich said. "I think he helped himself. Before this, he was a question mark. Now they know what he can do and what he needs to work on."

Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of player assessments, several scouts said Lewis has ample room for improvement and will need to convince NFL teams that he hungers for the aggression and violence of professional football. Still, they said his athleticism and explosiveness were impressive, particularly after he left the track surface for the football turf. He went through drills for defensive ends, tight ends and offensive linemen, but scouts said his attributes and 6-foot-5, 292-pound frame likely were best suited for the offensive line.

"I was a little hesitant when it first started, but the more it went on the more potential you could see in the guy," one scout said.

"He definitely has a shot, but he might be two years away," said another. "It's going to come down to how much he wants it, how much he wants to work. But he'll have the chance if he really wants it."

Lewis was tested in the vertical jump, reaching about 28 inches, and in the standing broad jump, traveling about 8 feet 8 inches. He has not yet started weight training and did not do the bench press, a standard pre-draft exercise.

NFL personnel said the measurements were less important than intangibles like Lewis's ability to accept direction and to improve quickly.

"He's extremely coachable, so he got better as the workout went on," said former NFL tight end Leonard Stephens, a coach with Perfect Performance who has been working with Lewis over the past week. "The reality of it is he's still a project, he's still a ways from playing. We all know that, everybody here knows that. But like I said, he's a blank piece of paper that you can write whatever essay you want to write on."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company