Don’t Sweat the Technique
#26 Jourdan Lewis, CB (Detroit, MI)
I needed an excuse to talk about Jourdan Lewis, the first genuine superstar of the Harbaugh era at Michigan. In the gloom after the Michigan State loss, it was evident that Lewis had blossomed into one of college football’s Elite players – he more than held his own against the high-powered tandem of Cook and Burbridge; he set the U-M record for pass breakups in a season after just eight games + one possession against Rutgers; PFF says he’s the best corner in the country.
I have two assumptions moving forward: a) Jim Harbaugh’s University of Michigan will have its share of memorable and / or dominant football players and b) I’ll probably want to write about those guys. So I’ll create a hypothetical “Known Friends and Trusted Agents” canon with my own arbitrary criteria – the HARBAUGH HALL OF HEROISM. Yes, this does seem like more of an offseason exercise for #content that looks at things after they’ve already happened, but we can all agree that Jourdan Lewis is extremely good and will eventually be remembered fondly for his exploits in a winged helmet.
Anyways, without further ado: Lewis is the first to be enshrined into the HHH.
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1. Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, it’s clear that the 2015 Michigan defense will have been one of the country’s best: currently, S&P and PFF (in the post linked above) rate it as the best in college football; FEI rates it fifth. Through nine games, the Wolverines have allowed opponents to score 107 points (11.9 ppg, the fewest in college football) – remove the kick return touchdown from Rutgers and the Bounce of Satan against Michigan State (as plays that should count against the special teams unit) and the defense itself has conceded just 93 (10.3 ppg). The 2006 Michigan defense was dominant through most of the season and – even though they got lit up by OSU and USC to end their season, U-M still had one of the top-tier defenses that year. Even though we still have four (or, God willing, five) games left on the schedule, Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison’s grimy goons up front and the No Fly Zone secondary that migrated east on 96 and south on 23 are anchoring an Elite defense. Somewhere, somebody smart will promote D.J. Durkin to his first head coaching job and it will be richly deserved.
[After the jump: Cass Tech, the OMG Pick-6 vs. NU, Burbridge vs. Lewis]
2. In the collection of players who can be argued as pretty important to the defense’s success, many are surprisingly under-the-radar gems that have been developing on the field for a while (with one obvious and notable exception, Jabrill Peppers): Ryan Glasgow was a walk-on, Maurice Hurst ran roughshod over Massachusetts high school competition (which is not great), Willie Henry’s other suitors were Illinois, Pitt, and Syracuse, and Matt Godin was a generic three-star; Desmond Morgan was a early Rich Rodriguez commit (over Northwestern) who’s somehow made it all the way to the Harbaugh Promised Land; Lewis committed early and his only two reported offers were Michigan and… Toledo, Channing Stribling was an out-of-the-region kid that balled out at one of U-M’s camps and earned an offer, Jeremy Clark was a 6’4 safety from an area typically barren of Power Five talent, and Delano Hill’s next-best offer was from Iowa – not a recruiting powerhouse. Those guys were far from high-profile regional prospects; they’re now collectively playing great football as key rotation pieces.
3. Not only is Jourdan Lewis part of the crew shattering their recruiting projections, he’s part of the Cass Tech Pipeline. Former Michigan running back Thomas Wilcher has built Cass Tech High School in Detroit into one of the state’s top-tier programs and one of its most regular producers of Power Five talent. Wilcher’s been the head coach at CT since 1997, compiled a 147-62 record in those 19 years, and won two state championships at the highest level of Michigan high school football in 2011 and 2012.
4. Jourdan Lewis played corner, receiver, and returned kicks as a junior and senior for those two state title teams. Four other future Wolverines (Royce Jenkins-Stone, Terry Richardson, Hill, and David Dawson) were on one or both of those teams. Three future Ohio State Buckeyes were as well. In accordance with the spirit of the rivalry, Jourdan sends them a little heat on Twitter.
7. There have been a lot of defensive back prospects from Cass Tech. Damon Webb, now a sophomore at Ohio State, is pushing for playing time on a stacked defense. Other than Webb – who was a composite Top 50 recruit and the best prospect Cass had produced in years – the Technician corners fit a certain mold: they were undersized but very quick. Still, three Top 150 corners – Boubacar Cissoko, Dior Mathis, and Terry Richardson – never made an impact: Cissoko didn’t play well early before unraveling off the field; Mathis and Richardson have zero career starts between them.
8. Brian’s recruiting recaps are usually worth referencing several years down the road and his 2013 post on Lewis is fascinating in hindsight:
Why [is Lewis reminiscent of] Terry Richardson? Richardson is a highly athletic cover corner who is extraordinarily slight and is still working through that as he tries to get on the field. Also is from Cass Tech, yeah.
Lewis is taller and gets praise for playing larger than he seems; I still suspect that as he moves up a level of competition the result when he tries to tackle a guy is going to look a lot like Courtney Avery as a freshman: dive and pray. If he can overcome that he can be a Countess heir apparent. This will take time and luck.
Guru Reliability: Exacting. Cass, healthy, on the radar forever, every possible camp.
Variance: High. Despite being high rated by just about everyone Lewis could bust if he never puts on weight and can't tackle anyone. Also, until a Cass corner actually plays well in a college football game that's skepticism-inducing.
Ceiling: Moderate-plus. Never going to be a thumper, a little size deficient, could be a really good cover guy.
General Excitement Level: Moderate. The variance is somewhat balanced by an apparent ability to play WR. He could put on enough weight to be an effective player in college, but whenever you're asking someone to do that you risk robbing them of their stand-out talent.
9. Some thoughts on that post:
- The comparison to Terry Richardson is certainly fair, in retrospect. I’m not sure if Richardson has played a meaningful snap at Michigan, but he was more highly-recruited, roughly the same size, and in the same tier of recruits on the massive list of prospects nationally.
- Guru reliability was exacting, as it typically is for Cass Tech players. Sometimes sites miss out on late-bloomers or prospects from obscure locales but Lewis was definitely not either of those. That Lewis has whatever it is – corner skills, fluid hips, cunning physical tricks – that stratifies him from other corners of the same modest size is not something that’s typically unearthed in the recruiting process.
- Moderate-plus ceiling + High variance = All-America. Lewis was eighth on the composite rankings of Michigan’s highly-touted, 27-man Class of 2013. Jake Butt was 14th. Hurst was 17th. Stribling was 22nd. Lewis hit the very top limit of his ceiling as a college player: he’s still not going to be a prospect NFL teams trip over themselves for, but he’s about as good as a 5’10 corner gets at the college level. Even if he’s not targeted in the first few rounds, he’ll get a crack at the pros based on how awesome he’s been in college.
- This sent me down the rabbit hole and I learned that Ace was a huge Jourdan Lewis fan, even before Michigan showed interest. The best nugget: “Overall, Lewis brings outstanding athleticism to the cornerback position, and his coverage skills improved markedly over the course of last season. He's also not afraid to come up and make a hit, and once he adds a few pounds he could be a plus defender against the run.” Ace also mentioned that Lewis, as a junior, was “one of the most impressive” prospects he saw that year, despite generally not being one of the most highly-regarded by ‘crootin people. Good eye, Ace.
- He was listed as “Lewis Jordan” on Cass Tech’s roster as a junior. What?
10. There are a few reasons why I’ve talked about Lewis’s high school career at length: there’s a lot to his origin story and it helps inform the best performance of his career. Firstly, there’s no debate that he’s been the best college player out of Cass Tech since Vernon Gholston starred for Ohio State a decade ago and that in and of itself is quite notable if only because of the sheer amount of Big Ten players to come out of that talent factory in the last several years.* Strategically, it’s a huge school for Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State’s recruiting. Not only did Michigan get the one guy on the above chart that has definitively emerged as an Elite player, he happened to be a corner – after having missed on undersized Cass Tech players (particularly cornerbacks) who never overcame their size deficiencies, Lewis, the biggest one to that point, developed into Michigan’s very best player period. And, perhaps most crucially, Jourdan Lewis is from the great state of Michigan and the U-M / MSU rivalry has been huge in his career – I’ll touch on this more later, but State’s secondary in 2013 and 2014 was a cornerstone to their success in those seasons and Michigan developing a fearsome secondary in 2015 – spearheaded by Lewis and Jabrill – is an important dynamic in that rivalry moving forward. State’s unfathomable collapse in pass defense this season is even more important.
*Cass Tech boasts the best 2017 prospect in the state of Michigan; Donovan Peoples-Jones is a consensus five star receiver and will likely be the most highly-touted recruit to ever come out of Cass. His teammates, Jaylen Kelly-Powell and Donovan Jackson are 9th and 12th in the 247 Composite’s state of Michigan rankings right now.
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11. The above picture is of Jourdan Lewis’s amazing pick-six against Northwestern this season. The loquacious Jabrill Peppers dropped this great quote after the game: “Jourdan’s the best corner in the country. That makes everybody’s job a lot easier. When you’ve got a guy out there who’s going to shut down half the field, that makes all of our jobs easy, so we- it’s expected from him. It’s not like, ‘Oh, good job, Jourdan.’ We expect that from Jourdan. So, Jourdan inspires me to play better, along with Channing and Jeremy and the whole secondary. We just feed off each other and try to just make as many plays as we possibly can.”
12. Consider that play as a microcosm of Lewis – each element signifying a unique skill of his. Without pressure from the defensive line, Thorson might not have even thrown the ball, but his receiver had created a tiny bit of separation on the fade; Lewis hadn’t been able to box out his man all the way to the sideline (something that he ordinarily does quite well) and he never actually gets his head turned around to play the ball. Ordinarily, Jourdan slowly eats up any window for the quarterback to throw the long ball, but on this play, for a moment, Lewis is beaten – then he does something that’s “expected of him”: while face-guarding the receiver, he reads the target’s eyes, sticks up his arms to contest the catch and then somehow, while the two jostle for the ball, Lewis snatches it from the receiver’s hands – in and of itself a terrific interception. Then Jourdan turns on the jets and sails past the Northwestern offense into the endzone before they realize the ball hadn’t fallen incomplete. Michigan could have won by a final score of “Jourdan Lewis 7, Northwestern 0” on the result of that play alone. Northwestern had been undefeated going into that game – the Cats are now 7-2 with games remaining against Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois (so 9-3 is a very realistic scenario for NU). Jourdan Lewis pretty much beat them by himself. And it didn’t even surprise Jabrill. Though I guess it makes sense that nothing on the football field would surprise him.
13. Northwestern was shell-shocked after Jehu Chesson’s opening kick return for a touchdown but then Michigan’s defense started dismembering the Wildcat offense and clubbing them with their own limbs. Once Jourdan took that NU pass 35 yards down the East sideline, the game was effectively over… in the first half.
14. Michigan was Back by that point. Over 180 minutes of football, the Wolverines had outscored their opponents by a combined margin of 97-0.* While the offensive braintrust continues to fumigate the latent odor of Brady Hoke (it settled into the carpet really badly), the defense was out there shutting out THREE CONSECUTIVE TEAMS in 2015! Holding any opponent to zero points is somewhat of a small miracle: one big bust in the secondary, one drive with terrible field position due to the offense or special team’s mistakes, any long field goals, and a shutout can be wiped away. It’s an ridiculous standard to have in the modern game and U-M held it for 25% of the regular season. It’s how people wind up vaguely disappointed when the defense concedes six points to Rutgers (though to be fair, that was the only suspense on Saturday).
*MICHIGAN = 1997 DEFENSE CONFIRMED.
15. Being a corner in a press man scheme has to be insanely difficult. At no other position in football is the “or else” more potentially devastating so often (except for maybe safety, but that’s another discussion for another day). Prevent a clean release of the line of scrimmage or else you’re already too far behind. Keep on the receiver’s hip or else he’s going to create enough space to get open. Don’t take a false step out of a cut or else there’s a decent window open for a split second. Don’t use your hands unless you’re really sneaky about it, or else you’ll get called for a penalty that gives an automatic first down. Get your head turned around on balls down the field or else you’ll run into someone and commit pass interference. Don’t get shook on a double move or else it’s six. Don’t miscommunicate with a safety or else it’s six. Don’t misread the receiver’s route and slow down for a split-second on a go route or else you’re torched, it’s six, and everybody in the stadium sees you sheepishly walking towards the sideline.
16. Before this season, Brian wrote that “Jourdan Lewis spent a year watching balls scrape over his outstretched fingers … He didn't like it much, so he went to the darkest parts of the swamp, seeking out the forbidden knowledge. He had heard Michigan State cornerbacks passed this way. The weird bronze scat they deposited in obscene patterns confirmed it. The hut loomed ahead. In it, Lewis learned terrible and wonderful things.” Lewis’s courage to step into the Great and Horrible Hut of Dark Corner Magic proved fruitful to take him from being a freshman that usually seemed to have awesome coverage but conceded receptions anyways to a stalwart sophomore starter. Now that he’s on a tenure track to teach the Dark Corner Magic himself, he’s an All-American level player / PhD candidate.
17. From what I’ve seen in these last couple years, the best skill you can have as a corner is getting away with playing [aggressive / grabby / physical] defense on a regular basis. Since quarterbacks are still targeting Jourdan Lewis – why? – we can see that theory in action. Jourdan Lewis is good because he has close to top-level speed, impressive fluidity getting in and out of breaks, and good ball skills. Jourdan Lewis is great because he augments those attributes with clever defense: subtly grabbing wrists for a split-second to break up the pass, giving jerseys a slight tug instead of wrapping his arm around the target, playing little push-and-shove games all the way down the sideline while slowly edging the receiver out of bounds. In head-to-head matchups with the opponent’s best receiver, a corner needs any advantage he can find. Between the sophistication of passing offenses these days and rules that favor them, it’s hard to begrudge the corner those little tricks. It’s not a penalty unless they call it.
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18. Warning: the video below contains the Bolden targeting call, the Pendleton touchdown, and the Play that Must Not be Named. Still, the description – Aaron Burbridge (and Connor Cook) vs. Jourdan Lewis, “duelo entre titanes” – is perfect, and the video itself is still a must-watch. [EDIT: link is here]
19. If we remove an early Burbridge catch where he was guarded by Jarrod Wilson and a jet-sweep action that was technically a pass, Burbridge was targeted 17 times against Lewis and finished with seven catches for 111 yards. None of his receptions went for touchdowns. His longest catch of the day was just 28 yards. Lewis was thrown at 17 times by a possible first-round quarterback and his top-flight (maybe First-Team All-Big Ten) receiver and he allowed just 6.5 yards per target. Entering the game, Cook and Burbridge had combined for 10.6 yards per target. The last play featuring Lewis and Burbridge – what really was a battle of the titans – was a long jump ball on 3rd-and-forever on State’s final drive. Burbridge had a shot at the first down, but Lewis broke up the pass at the last moment. The only argument for victory on behalf of the Cook / Burbridge tandem would be a gesture at the scoreboard (which: they didn’t make O’Neill drop the snap); everything else suggests that Lewis put the clamps on. Sometimes he got beat (how could he not, there were SEVENTEEEN targets); more often than not, he didn’t.
20. It doesn’t matter anyways. Michigan lost.
21. We’re still in the Big Ten title hunt though and thank goodness for that.
22. I’m still upset that Burbridge vs. Lewis ended on some bullshit and maybe that’s why I’ve procrastinated on writing my “Jourdan Lewis is so awesome” piece. Burbridge – who was teammates with Funchess and Ojemudia at Farmington Hills Harrison – is another in-state guy who opted into the underrated and bitterly fierce U-M / MSU rivalry; Lewis and Burbridge had played against each other for years and this was the final installment. It was a classic – there’s not really much to say after that video: Burbridge is a speedy dude who runs good routes and should make his way onto an NFL roster, Lewis is a lockdown corner, a legit and rare true number one that will follow your guy and play him one-on-one all game, no matter who he is. College football fans typically don’t get to see the game-within-the-game played so clearly in front of them at such a high level. It was just 16 and 26 in space and it was clear to everyone watching that U-M and MSU put forth their best. It was old-school gladiatorial combat: my best against yours.
23. If there is a clear silver lining to be found in the aftermath of that game in particular, it’s that Michigan has the reliable, attacking, and intimidating secondary that we’ve been coveting from our neighbors for a while. With Lewis’s stated to desire to finish his degree and Jabrill Peppers’s continued existence, it projects to be more of the same next year. Unfortunately for State, Cook and Burbridge will be playing on Sundays instead.
24. It’s a surprise that Jourdan Lewis has played this excellently this season; it’s a surprise that the secondary’s been so dominant this season; it’s a surprise that Michigan’s 7-2 and – assuming State drops the game to Ohio State on the road – effectively in control of its own destiny in the Big Ten. It’s been a fast start to the Harbaugh era, perhaps faster than most of us expected. To be clear, the defense has been carrying the water (as well as the special teams, for field position reasons) for the offense; Harbaugh’s known as an offensive guru, but the staff he built – led by Durkin – built on Hoke’s defensive foundation, made some schematic tweaks so as to be fully comfortable in the 21st century of college football, and has ratcheted up the intensity to 11. It’s the best defense Michigan’s had since 2006. May be better.
25. And Jabrill said it himself: Lewis is the best defender on the team. There isn’t really that much room for debate, as the other most individually stellar players on the team are the defensive linemen that cycle in and out to stay fresh. Lewis locks down half the field, plays that delightfully tricky type of coverage that goes right up to the limit of getting a flag nearly every, and eases the pressure on the rest of Michigan’s defensive backfield by dutifully taking the toughest opponent and shutting him down. Jourdan’s the best corner Michigan’s had in about a decade, give or take, and it makes sense – at this juncture – to bestow him my utterly valueless distinction as the first inductee into the wonderful Harbaugh Hall of Heroism. The best part: there’s more football to be played. Let us enjoy Jourdan and his mischievousness and brilliance for the rest of the season – and perhaps another.
26. <---- I just had to get to the number 26. By the way, judging by Seth’s “best ever by number” list from 2009, Jourdan Lewis is the best Wolverine ever to wear that number.