INDIANAPOLIS – Taylor Lewan hopes he’s done walking a tightrope.
In the past seven years, the former Arizona high school star has risen to great heights. But alongside those triumphs have come potential pitfalls. He’s navigated them to the precipice of the NFL draft, but also knows those who consistently flirt with danger are always one misstep away from disaster.
The Michigan left tackle’s footing was solid during his media interview inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday, the second of his four-day trek here for the NFL Scouting combine. Despite the large contingent asking sometimes uncomfortable questions, the 22-year-old with the 6-foot-8, 315-pound frame and even bigger personality took it all in stride.
The only time he became flustered had nothing to do with the line of questions: During the middle of his interview, the overhead speaker blared an announcement for Jets coach Rex Ryan’s impending press conference, causing Lewan to look around in bewilderment.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m a little jumpy.”
Lewan called his appearance at the combine ‘an absolute dream come true,’ and in fewer than three months, he is projected to be a
Lewan saw his first collegiate playing time in a road game against Notre Dame as a redshirt freshman in 2010, lining up near the goal-line as 80,000-plus raucous fans bellowed from the seats above. Three years earlier, the more likely path had him at a local junior college with 80 parents in the stands.
It has never been a question of ability with Lewan, but the battle between the ears. He transferred from Cave Creek (Ariz.) Cactus Shadows High School to nearby Scottsdale Chaparral as a junior, and brought with him a 1.6 grade point average.
When college coaches watched him at spring practice, their eyes would light up. Once they looked at his transcripts, many backed off.
“A lot of schools shied away thinking he wasn’t going to make it,” said Charlie Ragle, Lewan’s coach at Chaparral and the current tight ends coach at the University of Arizona. “I told (current Arizona and former Michigan assistant) Tony Dews, ‘Hey man, trust me, we’ll get this kid qualified. He’s serious about doing it and we’ll get it done.’”
Lewan attacked his studies with the maniacal energy he’s known for on the field, boosting his GPA to 2.6 over three semesters.
“My freshman year of high school was god-awful,” Lewan said. “I don’t think I passed half my classes. My senior year I had a full class schedule and two semesters of online classes. Just getting through that made me notice that at the end of high school I’m either going to be working construction or I’m going to have a scholarship to play at Michigan. I didn’t want to take those things for granted.”
With the schoolwork under control, Lewan was allowed to do what came naturally, and he became the most dominant offensive lineman in Arizona. While his talent was plenty to overwhelm opponents, he also had a nasty streak. As he gets ready for the NFL, it’s a trait scouts love, but in high school, it was sometimes a crutch.
One Friday night, an overmatched defensive lineman from nearby Apache Junction High School quickly found out Lewan does not have an off switch.
“He Michael Oher’d him, basically,” Ragle said. “He ‘Blindsided’ him. He throws the kid 50 yards down the field, almost to the fence and he gets a 15-yard penalty. The ref tells me, ‘He’s well away from the play.’ I said, ‘He engaged him at the play and drove him 50 yards.’ As I’m ripping one ref, he’s ripping the other, saying, ‘How much are they paying (you)?’ and gets another penalty.”
As he tends to do, Lewan was toeing a fine line.
“He was a free spirit, needed some parameters, needed some guidance,” Ragle said. “So I’m ripping him on the outside, but on the inside I’m saying, ‘Man, this kid’s got something special.’ A lot of times the big kids are soft because their whole life they’ve been told to take it easy on the little kids. You’re not going to take that fire and passion, that personality, out of Taylor Lewan.”
Lewan started four consecutive years at left tackle for the Wolverines, earning first-team AP All-America honors in 2012. His on-field outbursts also carried over, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said the tradeoff is one he would gladly take.
“When you talk about aggressiveness, I don’t think you can ever call it a negative,” Keim said. “I think (coach) Bruce Arians says it best whenever he tells you, ‘It’s a lot easier to tell them ‘Whoa’ than ‘Sic,’ if that makes sense. Either they bite as puppies or they’re never going to bite.”
Lewan is known as a gregarious and jovial person off the field, as he made headlines for riding a two-seater bike, buying a pet pig and tattooing a picture of a moustache on his finger during his time in Ann Arbor.
However, a pair of alleged off-field incidents marred his time in college. Lewan was alleged to have threatened a woman with sexual assault over the phone after she claimed his former roommate, kicker Brendan Gibbons, raped her in 2009. He was also accused of assaulting an Ohio State fan in 2013. Charges were not filed in either case, and Lewan on Thursday denied both allegations.
“It kills me inside,” Lewan said. “It probably kills my mother too. She helped raise me. The player I am on the field, it’s probably really easy to assume all that stuff about me, but that’s not who I am at all.”
At the NFL level, Lewan is projected to be an elite player. While the Wolverines struggled to a 7-6 record last season and the offensive line drew its share of criticism, analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. said Lewan would be a steal if he dropped out of the top-10.
“I think he’s a heck of a prospect, and I’ve thought that all along,” Kiper, Jr. said. “Taylor Lewan has outstanding feet, balance in pass protection, technically sound. He has that nasty streak you love to see in a left tackle. If he gets down to 11 to Tennessee, he’s a heck of a pick. He could go 2 to St. Louis.”
Lewan was projected as a first-round pick last year, but surprised many by returning to Michigan for his final season of eligibility. Ragle doesn’t hide the fact that Lewan probably made an unwise financial decision, but said it dovetails with his personality.
“He’s just a big kid,” Ragle said.
Now, as Lewan transitions, he hopes to embody the literal meaning of a professional. After all, tight-rope artists can’t balance forever.
“I really do believe I have (matured),” Lewan said, “Some people might say differently based on some of the things out there about me. I’ve definitely grown up.”