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All Eyes Are Focused on Gifted Lewis

Times Staff Writer

Growing up, Marcedes Lewis was always one of the biggest kids in his class, and he loved to tell friends that he was going to be a football player someday.

But UCLA’s senior tight end didn’t last long in his first youth league season at age 8. After a week of practices, Lewis decided that football was too time consuming, so he quit.

He spent afternoons after school at a neighborhood hangout in Long Beach, playing video games while his mother, who raised Lewis as a single parent, thought he was at practice.

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“My mom used to work two jobs, so I would go to the laundromat and spend the bus fare that I was supposed to use to get to practice,” Lewis said. “It was fun for a while, but that came to an end ... “

Uh-huh. The day mom found out.

“Marcedes’ football coach came to the apartment and said that he’s here to pick up his equipment, so I said, ‘What equipment?’ ” Lewis’ mother, Yvonne Withers, recalled. “The coach goes, ‘Marcedes hasn’t been to practice in over two weeks.’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ ”

When Lewis returned home, his mother was waiting.

“Marcedes walks up with his uniform on as if he had been working out,” Withers said. “He had dirt on it, grass stains and everything. We later found out he had been rolling in the dirt, scrubbing his knees on the grass down the street ...

“I told him that I don’t raise quitters,” she added. “So he made a promise that he would stick it out and if he didn’t want to play any more after that he wouldn’t have to.”

By the next year, Lewis was hooked on football, and today he is a leading candidate for the John Mackey Award, which goes to college football’s top tight end at the end of the season.

“He’s one big ol’ target,” said Lewis Baker, the Oklahoma strong safety who will match up against Lewis on Saturday when undefeated UCLA plays the No. 21-ranked Sooners at the Rose Bowl. “He’s one of the best tight ends we’ll face this season and we know he’s a key to their offense.”

At 6 feet 6, 256 pounds, Lewis is a quarterback’s dream. He’s big, strong, fast and sure-handed.

“Marcedes is definitely a guy you want to get the ball to,” UCLA senior quarterback Drew Olson said. “He’s such a tough guy to defend. I know that he makes my job easier because he’s so good.”

Added freshman quarterback Ben Olson: “Marcedes is Marcedes and you’ve got to take advantage of that ... Nobody can really match up on him.”

Lewis already owns the UCLA school record for tight ends with 11 touchdowns, and his 77 receptions are only eight shy of Bruin career leader Paul Bergmann.

After grabbing 32 passes for 402 yards and seven touchdowns last year, Lewis had a breakout game against San Diego State to open the season. In the Bruins’ 44-21 victory, Lewis had a career-high seven catches for 131 yards and made it look easy.

“Marcedes, with his experience, size and athleticism, will always be a key factor to the productivity of what we do,” UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. “He’s an integral part. We’re going to try and utilize his talents as best we can.”

Last week, Lewis had nearly the same impact in UCLA’s 63-21 win over Rice even though he caught only two passes for 27 yards.

With the Owls keeping at least two defenders on Lewis on every play, the Bruins’ other offensive weapons dominated the game.

“With him out there, I know that he’s going to get the bulk of the attention from a defense,” said senior wide receiver Junior Taylor, who had five catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns against Rice.

“That leaves a lot of opportunities for me to make big plays. I’m really feeding off of his success and eventually he’ll feed off mine. He’s really the guy who makes things work for our offense.”

Lewis, who is built like an NBA power forward, attacks defenses as if he were a basketball player. If a physical linebacker tries to defend him, Lewis plays like a guard and uses his speed to get open. If a smaller defensive back attempts to stop him, Lewis uses his size to grab passes as if he were posted up near the rim.

If there was a knock on Lewis, it was that he was an exceptional receiver but only an average blocker. The last two years, Lewis has made great strides in that area under tight end coach Jon Embree.

Against San Diego State, Lewis had a near perfect game. Not only did he dominate the Aztecs’ secondary with a variety of open-field catches and moves, Lewis also helped UCLA rush for nearly 200 yards.

“I want to be one of the big reasons why we win games here,” Lewis said. “This is my senior year and I’m definitely not trying to go 6-6. I work hard every day for each and every member of our team.... There’s a reason why I came here and I’m living my dream out.”

Lewis considered leaving UCLA after last season and making himself eligible for the NFL draft. While he wasn’t a lock to be taken in the first round, experts said he would have been a high pick because of his size, frame and athletic ability.

That would have been the culmination of a goal for Lewis, who wrote a poem he titled “I Am” in a seventh-grade English class that ended:

“I dream that I am buying my parents a new house with my football money”

“I try to get good grades; I hope I make it”

“I am a funny young man who likes to play football”

But Lewis didn’t go for the money. He weighed his options and decided to return to Westwood and finish his career strong. It was a decision that surprised some, but not those close to Lewis.

“We all talked prior to him making the decision and he always knew that he was going to stay for his senior year,” said Mike Withers, Lewis’ stepfather. “We totally agreed because that’s what we all wanted all along.”

Lewis said it was a simple decision for him to return to school. He didn’t want to leave without giving it everything he had for the Bruin program.

When he signed with UCLA, the school of choice for most Long Beach Poly players was USC. Manuel Wright, Kareem Kelly and Winston Justice were high school teammates before signing with the Trojans.

“When I made the decision, no one was coming here from Poly,” Lewis said. “But it’s good now. We have a bunch of younger guys from Poly here now” -- defensive tackle Kevin Brown, offensive tackle Justin Brown and cornerbacks Byron Velega and Rodney Van. “I can see that things are already changing. We just have to start getting it done on the field.”

A victory over Oklahoma on Saturday would go a long way toward that goal.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bruin tight ends

The top receivers at the position in UCLA history:

*--* Years Rec Yds Avg. TD 1. Paul Bergmann 1979-83 85 1,076 12.7 5 2. Marcedes Lewis 2002-05 77 988 12.8 11 3. Tim Wrightman 1978-81 73 947 13.0 10 3. Charles Arbuckle 1986-89 73 821 11.3 4 5. Derek Tennell 1983-86 67 638 9.5 3 6. Mike Seidman 1999-2002 61 989 16.2 7

*--*


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