COVINGTON, Ga. — Robert Lewis hadn’t recorded a catch yet, nor had he crossed the end zone for one of his two touchdown receptions last Friday night against Eastside, but he already saw something in Eastside’s coverage schemes that coaxed out his inner Keyshawn Johnson.
“He actually came to the sidelines and said, ‘Coach, just give me the ball,’” said Josh Skelton, Newton assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “When he came to the sideline, before anything happened and before you started seeing those streams of catches, he’d seen something where he felt like he could win his matchups in the game going forward, and he said he wanted the ball. And he didn’t blink when he said it.”
“I just felt like I had the mismatches,” Lewis said. “I felt like their players couldn’t guard me at the time, and to be honest, I still don’t think they can. So I just wanted them to get the ball to me as much as they could so I can help my team win.”
Newton didn’t win, but Lewis’ performance — four catches, 141 receiving yards, two scores and a 45-yard kickoff return — was of the breakout variety for those outside of the Rams football program who may have never seen him play.
For Skelton and company, it was just another reminder.
“I don’t know if anybody here at Newton is surprised by what he’s doing,” Skelton said. “Robert’s really just falling in line with our expectations.”
Those expectations began to elevate as soon as he stepped foot onto the football field as a ninth grader. The Rams typically relegate all their freshman to play on the freshman squad before getting their feet wet in the varsity pool. But even then, Lewis played like he’d already been swimming with the big boys.
“I’d say it was the spring practice going into his sophomore year when we saw how dynamic he was,” Skelton said. “But, I mean, even as a ninth grader, you knew. We do our thing where all our guys play on the ninth grade team, but the way Robert performed every Wednesday, it looked like he wasn’t even supposed to be out there.”
Lewis, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound junior has had other big games — see the 10-catch, 130-yard, two-touchdown outing he had at Heritage-Conyers last year. That was part of his 29-catch, 409-yard, 5-touchdown season state line in 2017. But this year he’s bigger, faster and stronger as a receiver after packing on 20 pounds of muscle and maintaining his 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed.
He’s also a smarter wideout, Skelton says, and has shown a penchant for mastering the technical side of his craft along with the physical.
“Robert and Mike (Mathison) are always competing with each other about how well they run their routes,” Skelton said. “The things he does, like being able to turn his head on a route while running full speed, he never gives an indication of where his route is going during the first four or five steps. These are the things that have won him a job as a starter.”
And not just a starter, but a big-play threat at any time.
“Every receiver has a role,” Skelton said. “He’s definitely one whom we consider a home run hitter. With Robert, a simple slant can go 80 yards. If you’re not in position, he’s gonna be looking to take it to the house.”
Case-in-point, Lewis’ second touchdown catch against the Eagles. His first one was a 65-yard bomb from quarterback Neal Howard, but the latter — a 42-yard scoring strike on a a seam route where LT Stowers faked to the flat and hit Lewis over the middle — is the one the wideout says best exemplifies his talents.
“It was that deep-ball play that I think showcased what I can do,” Lewis said. “I used my speed to beat the defender and I feel like that’s one of my best assets. When I get out like that, I don’t think anybody can keep up with me.”
Lewis gets his football talent honestly. His brother? Former Newton star and NFL running back Akeem Hunt.
Hunt graduated from Newton in 2010 and spent four years at tailback at Purdue before finding his way onto the New York Giants’ roster in 2015 as an undrafted free agent. He’s also spent time with the Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs.
Lewis said having a big brother with Power 5 and NFL ability has done nothing but enlarge his own vision of the kind of player he can be.
“He’s like a role model to me,” Lewis said. “To have a big brother make it to the league, coming from the same household as me lets me know that getting to that level is attainable for me too.”
Because there’s about an eight-year age difference between the two, Lewis said he would often get the short end of the stick when trying to buck up against Hunt and compete with him. But now Lewis believes the playing field has evened out a bit.
“I feel like I can keep up with him now,” Lewis said. “Just being able to have him to compare myself to helps me get better. We still talk all the time. He actually talked with me Saturday after the game and told me, ‘good job,’ and ‘keep it going.’”
And now that Lewis’ play is starting to turn heads beyond the local scene, he says he doesn’t have any intentions of stopping his current trajectory any time soon.
Over the next six weeks, Lewis will take visits to Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisville and LSU — call it the first steps toward what Skelton believes will soon become a very busy recruitment period for Lewis.
“Oh, he’s definitely a Power Five university kind of talent,” Skelton said. “That’s what hard work gets you. He looks the part now. If you watch his film from last year to now, he was good then, but he didn’t look the part. He understood that and went back to work in the weight room hard, with guys like Mike and Adarius (Thomas). Now, from the neck down to the ankles, you can see he’s got a different body.
“Now he just has to continue putting in that hard work to become the player we all know he can be.”
Said Lewis: “I mean, it’s all pretty exciting. I want it to keep going. Knowing those kinds of schools are starting to show interest gives me confidence that one day soon I’ll start getting those offers. It just makes me want to work that much harder.”
So does losing. And Skelton sees it happening, even since last Friday’s 27-20 loss to Eastside.
The coach says Lewis has turned up the intensity in practice this past week “to a level I haven’t seen from him.”
“Since Friday didn’t really go the way we wanted to, I felt like we didn’t prepare like we wanted to,” Lewis said. “So now we’re preparing for games like we expect a different outcome. So in practice, we’ve gotta go hard, we’ve gotta get better and just move on.”
Lewis and his Newton teammates got some extra time to do just that, as the Rams had a bye Friday before hosting Arabia Mountain next Friday at 7:30 p.m., then traveling to Class AAAAA No. 2 Buford on September 14.
Lewis says he’s going to enjoy the uptick in competition.
“It makes you want to keep working,” he said. “I know I’ve really just gotta perform on every play and give my all at every play. No matter if it’s me catching a pass or making a block for another player to get into the end zone. It’s about doing whatever it takes to get the W.”
He said he’s learned from watching some of the best receivers in the game how important it is to be that complete receiver, and not just a flashy pass-catcher.
“It’s two receivers, really, who are my favorites that I try to pattern my game after,” Lewis said. “Antonio Brown (of the Pittsburgh Steelers) and DeAndre Hopkins (of the Houston Texans). Antonio is just a dog. He’s only 5-10, but he’s doing things that any other receiver can do. Like Julio (Jones), he’ll go up and get it. And DeAndre, he just seems to make amazing catches every game.”
But when it comes that personal motivation he needs to keep reaching for the highest levels, Lewis says he falls back on advice from his big brother, Hunt.
“He tells me all the time just to keep working,” Lewis said. “Work on my speed and all that stuff. Work on my footwork and the things he did that I saw him do and saw him get the offers from it. I’m pretty sure that if I do what he did, I’ll get some of the same things.”