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All Eyes on Manning, Manning's Eyes on Lewis

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 1998; Page E06

MIAMI, Dec. 31 Jamal Lewis has gotten used to the ribbing he gets from Peyton Manning. A first-year running back, Lewis arrived in Tennessee well aware of how to plow through holes in the line and catch passes. What he wasn't good at, though, was pass protection. And with Manning in the pocket, pass protection became Lewis's biggest job.

"Oh, he's yelled at me plenty of times," Lewis said of Manning. "If I bust a block or miss a pass. In practice, he gets on me a lot. He does it for me. He wants me to be the best back I can be in our system."

And Lewis surprised Manning. After three games, the freshman was a starter. And at the conclusion of the regular season, Lewis had accumulated 1,364 rushing yards best ever for a true freshman at Tennessee. Now, Manning has presented Lewis with one more challenge: Friday night at the Orange Bowl, Manning will start with a sore right knee and limited mobility. For his own protection, he needs Lewis to establish a running game against the Nebraska defense, which is known for quashing the run.

"Everybody knows we throw more than we run," said Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutliffe, who said this morning that Manning is definitely scheduled to start Friday night. "But we have to maintain the threat the ability to run. I'm not just putting it on Jamal's shoulders, but I think that will be a big issue in that game. They are going to want to stop the run."

Manning, who ruptured the bursa sac in his right knee on Dec. 4, has shown steady improvement in practice all week and appears poised to handle the bulk of the work for the Volunteers on Friday. Cutliffe said today that swelling had lessened and Manning appeared upbeat "although I'm not sure if it's because of the knee or because his girlfriend got to town," Cutliffe joked. But Manning still doesn't have full mobility and Lewis, for one, knows what that means.

"It's going to be a bit more pressure on me, but I feel like it's going to be a good game," Lewis said. "[Manning's] not full speed, but he'll be ready. You can see in practice that he can't scramble as well, but we know he'll be ready."

Lewis narrowly selected Tennessee over Nebraska a school known for its running game in part because he liked the idea of playing his freshman year with Manning in the pocket, running the offense and taking the spotlight off a rookie running back such as himself. What he wasn't prepared for, though, was the amount of work he'd have to do to fit into a system that expected him to be an expert pass protector.

And what the coaches did not expect was that Lewis would learn the system so quickly. They started him in the fourth game of the season, after the team's disheartening loss to Florida, the Volunteers' only loss this season. He gained 155 yards on 22 carries, including a 42-yard touchdown run, against Mississippi.

"I was shocked," Lewis said, smiling at the memory. "I expected to get maybe 60, 70 yards. I wasn't really nervous, I don't think."

A soft-spoken 18-year-old from Atlanta, Lewis may joke about getting hounded by Manning, but mostly he avoided the usual rookie hazing and abuse. He did not come to Tennessee expecting to start right away, and when anyone from the coaching staff to the sophomores told him what to do, he did it and kept his mouth shut.

"I didn't run my mouth a lot," Lewis said. "And I didn't think I was a big shot. They don't like it when you come in with a big head."

Already, though, Lewis is exhibiting an attitude typical of top-level college players these days: Unlike Manning, who stuck it out all four years at Tennessee, despite a tempting offer to go pro last spring, Lewis doesn't necessarily see himself as a Volunteer for that long.

"I'm going to be at Tennessee just as long as I have to," he said. "I want to learn as much as I can. If I do go to the NFL, I don't want to be missing anything from my game. But I feel like if you've got a chance, you'd better take it."

So maybe his head is swelling, just a little bit, now that the Volunteers are here for a big bowl game something that didn't enter Lewis's head a year ago, when he watched the bowl games on television in Atlanta. He never expected to be a starter by the fourth game. He never expected to rack up more than 1,000 yards in his first season. And he certainly didn't expect to spend his New Year's Eve in Miami Beach, where he'd never been before.

"I like it here," Lewis said, grinning. "Although the weather's not as hot as I expected. But it's all about focusing anyway. I'm ready to play right now."

Orange Bowl Notes: Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer has received a contract extension through 2003 that pays him $750,000 per season, Athletic Director Doug Dickey announced today.

Fulmer, in his seventh year at Tennessee, will start next season as the winningest active coach in Division I regardless of the outcome of Friday night's Orange Bowl. The only coach who can overtake him in that category is Nebraska's Tom Osborne, who is retiring after the game.

"We are very pleased with where he has taken us," Dickey said.

Fulmer, who played for Tennessee from 1968 to '71, has a 54-10 record heading into this Orange Bowl, and has led the third-ranked Volunteers to an 11-1 record this season.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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