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Lewis on Receiving End of Accolades

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nate Lewis had quite a day Sunday for the Chargers, but first let’s clear this up.

On the final touchdown of this 38-17 victory over the New York Jets at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, the one he scored from 10 yards out on a receiver misdirection run, what was the deal? Did Lewis really cross the goal line? It sure didn’t look like it on the replay.

“Oh,” Lewis said. “Well, my elbow was in and everything.”

Yes, but you don’t hold the ball with your elbow, Nate. Didn’t your knee hit before the ball made it across the goal line?

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He smiled.

“The referee said I got in,” he said. “That’s all that counts.”

True enough. Anyway, taking that touchdown away would take nothing away from Lewis, who collected more yards in receptions during Sunday’s game than he had in all the other games combined.

And there is more to it than that. His four catches for 89 yards were nice. So were his two touchdowns, particularly for a rookie. But what really counts is that Lewis took a small portion of pressure off the shoulders of Anthony Miller, the Chargers’ primary target. Consequently, Miller found a little more room to maneuver in the New York secondary.

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A lot of people have checked in and out of the spot reserved for the other wide receiver this season. Quinn Early gave it a try. Then it was Walter Wilson’s turn. And finally, Lewis was given his chance, earning his first start in Week 10 after he was out four weeks with a pulled muscle in his leg.

Maybe, just maybe, Lewis settled the matter on Sunday.

“I’m not going to say that,” he said. “I don’t want to get too cocky. I just want to say that I had a pretty good game.”

There was the 25-yarder in the first quarter when he grabbed the pass, fumbled and then pounced on the ball quicker than a dog jumps toward a T-bone steak. That set up the Chargers’ second touchdown.

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There was the 40-yarder in the fourth quarter when Lewis scorched cornerback Tony Stargell. That set up a 19-yard touchdown pass from Billy Joe Tolliver to . . . Nate Lewis. On that play, Lewis got open over the middle and reached up to clutch a fastball. Not Tolliver’s fastest. Just fast enough.

“It wasn’t that fast,” Lewis said. “Not like he really can throw it.”

Not hardly.

“I threw it pretty hard,” Tolliver said. “But it wasn’t as hard as I can throw it.”

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Finally, there was the disputed touchdown, on which he apparently bounced into the end zone.

And all that was great to watch. But perhaps what got the attention of Charger Coach Dan Henning above everything else was that Lewis may have made the Jets think a little about putting all their efforts into stopping Miller. On one play in the second quarter, Lewis was sent deep down the middle. He and a Jet defender got tangled up and the ball fell incomplete, but Henning said that may have helped Miller score on his 24-yard reception in the third quarter.

“Just the fact that he went down there and showed that speed, the safety hung in there (the second time) and didn’t jump Anthony,” Henning said. “It’s nice to have a guy that can run fast and make people think twice about doubling Anthony.”

If Lewis turns out to be the guy who makes a few people back off Anthony Miller, then he has done himself proud when you consider that Charlie Joiner, the Charger receiver coach, had never heard of him at this time last year.

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Joiner saw film of Lewis catching passes for Oregon Tech, a small school that has only produced one other player to be drafted by the NFL. Joiner was impressed, particularly with Lewis’ ability to run with the ball after making a catch.

So the Chargers took a chance and selected him in the seventh round. Things worked out nicely, though Joiner won’t take credit for discovering a player nobody else knew about.

“Oh no,” he said. “Every time we play some team some guy will tell me: ‘Man, we really wanted that Nate Lewis, but we wanted him in a later round.’ So he wasn’t an unnoticed guy.”

Lewis has helped his own cause. He acknowledges he was nervous when he first arrived in San Diego. Playing in the NFL is a whole different galaxy from Oregon Tech. But if part of the reason Lewis has reached this level is because he has a fine pair of hands, it is also because he has two good ears. Anytime he doesn’t understand something that is being discussed in a team meeting, he asks.

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“He never goes out with a doubt in his mind,” Joiner said. “That’s the good thing about him. With his ability and his enthusiasm to work hard every day, I think he’s going to be a good player.”

That would make him a bargain. You don’t often find players of his caliber hidden in the seventh round.

“Let’s hope he turns out like the last seventh-rounder we got,” Tolliver said.

He was referring to Marion Butts.

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