PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- One of Jourdan Lewis' signature plays in college nearly became a disaster.
On a Saturday against Wisconsin this past October, needing to make a play for Michigan, the cornerback jumped early on a deep ball thrown late in the game. Had he missed the ball, it might have allowed a game-tying touchdown. Instead, Lewis' one-handed interception of quarterback Alex Hornibrook's pass to receiver George Rushing turned into one of the biggest plays of his career. It displayed all of Lewis' athleticism -- his vertical, his hands, his speed and his agility -- while dismissing height concerns.
Lewis saw the ball coming. He posted up Rushing while running, leaped and knew he'd have to do the spectacular to win it. He had practiced one-handed catches all the time at Cass Tech High School in Detroit, but rarely did it in games. When he felt the tip of the ball hit his hand, he knew he would haul it in.
"You feel like it's an out-of-body experience," Lewis said. "Like, oh man, just let your athleticism take over and it's just one of the moments."
It was a Michigan career full of game-changing plays for Lewis, one of the top cornerbacks in college football his senior year. He was a Thorpe Award finalist and finished his career with 133 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 39 pass breakups and six interceptions.
Now, he has to prove himself all over again.
Lewis heads to Indianapolis for the NFL combine knowing there are attributes he can confirm for coaches, scouts and executives -- and things no matter what he does, he cannot change. He wants to show his quickness, mobility, speed and athleticism -- all things the combine tests for. He's confident he'll interview well.
He believes strongly in his technique, something he has refined over the past two months at Barwis Methods in Plymouth, Michigan, focusing specifically on getting in and out of his breaks and opening his hips with more fluidity.
"It wasn't he wasn't able to do it, but it was discipline, I would say, in regards to getting his feet into position," said Dan Mozes, a former West Virginia center and his trainer at Barwis Methods. "Sometimes he gets crazy with his footwork and it gets him in a bad position. He makes up for it because he's fast and he is powerful and he is explosive.
"So that's actually one thing that makes up for it. That's the same thing when he runs. He comes out of his break and his feet go outside of his body or he makes one bad step, but he can make up for it very, very fast. Our goal is to teach him by repetition, repetition, repetition not to do that."
Mozes and his staff dug in from Lewis' first day, walking him through proper steps, having him stand in certain positions and drilling it consistently as he prepared for the Senior Bowl.
Lewis performed well at the Senior Bowl, where he got his first chance to display on a higher level what he had shown during his time at Michigan: That the No. 7 cornerback and No. 36 ranked player in this draft class by ESPN.com is worthy of a high draft pick and will be a productive NFL player. During Senior Bowl week, he noticed a difference. Fully healed from hamstring issues he dealt with during his final season at Michigan, Lewis felt more explosive and clean as he broke -- one of the areas he wanted to make sure was as strong as possible.
"That's my livelihood," Lewis said between workouts earlier this month. "Just breaking and making sure we're opening up the hips and running, that's what corners do, so definitely that's been our focal point since I've been at Barwis.
"We've been doing a great job of getting more explosive and making sure I can turn over and explode out of my breaks and different things like that."
Doing this will continue to lessen the one question that has followed him over the past half decade: His height. It's one thing he knows he can't do anything about. No amount of working out or running or stretching will turn him from 5-foot-10 (his Senior Bowl measurement) to 6-foot-2.
He hates the questions, but knows they could soon disappear. Whenever he is drafted, whatever he does on the field will matter -- not his size.
"When I was going into college, everybody is like, ‘Oh, he's going to be another bust. Cass Tech bust. He's like 5-9 and different things like that. He's too short, too little to play,'" Lewis said. "And ever since then, it's been a big thing. In high school, nobody really cared, you're just going out there and playing.
"Now everything is about statistics and who does he measure up to and he's like this guy because he's 5-9 and we haven't seen a guy that is 5-9 that can do different things like that, so that's always been a limitation since I was going to Michigan."
His size rarely hampered him in college. He consistently defended taller receivers. He kept up with them downfield, jumped and made plays consistently.
Now he wants to show he can play in the slot and outside in the pros by using the same philosophy he had at Michigan.
"You got to bother them," Lewis said. "You got to be like a little gnat, got to be on the side, got to be on the hip all the time and just let them know that you're there. They like that separation. They want that separation but a lot of big guys don't like that in-your-face kind of stuff and they want to get off the line and do the routes and different things like that.
"So you have to get into him, be physical with him and different things like that. You can't be passive with the big guys."
Lewis enjoys pressing receivers and has the toughness for it. At Michigan, he added the frame to be able to handle it -- measuring in at 188 pounds at the Senior Bowl. And he's looking to add more sturdiness as he transitions to the pros.
It's a long way from his sophomore year at Michigan, when he wondered about his path to the NFL. Michigan was losing. The Wolverines had just switched coaches from Brady Hoke to Jim Harbaugh.
Lewis heard the intense stories about Harbaugh. Now, he calls his coach during the last two years of college "a godsend." The staff Harbaugh hired -- specifically defensive backs coach Mike Zordich -- pushed him as a cornerback. For the first time, Lewis said, he understood different offensive personnel packages and how offenses might try to counter Michigan's defensive looks.
Before Harbaugh and Zordich arrived, Lewis said he was taught to focus more on his position and less on what was going on with the entire offense and defense. When he started to understand the broader picture, his play blossomed.
"It's just instinctual now," Lewis said. "Like it just comes to you now, like, 'OK, he can do this,' and you're just reacting to things instead of just being on the defense. It just felt better.
"You could feel yourself being engaged in the game instead of, 'All right, this is what I do.' It wasn't so robotic. It was more smooth and you could see me playing with some awareness."
His instincts became one of his biggest strengths. By the time he was done at Michigan and again in the Senior Bowl, he proved he can play no matter his height. The Wisconsin interception proved that. So did his statistics.
Now, he's going to use the next two months to show NFL teams as well.
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