LEXINGTON, Kentucky. Last season, Rich Scangarello sat in the San Francisco 49ers’ conference room on the eve of their game against the Arizona Cardinals.
The LSU-Kentucky game was broadcast on a large-screen TV in the room, and Scangarello and other members of the 49ers organization, including general manager John Lynch and assistant general manager Adam Peters, watched as they waited for the game to begin. Kentucky quarterback Will Lewis put on a show, throwing three touchdowns and running two more in a 42-21 win.
Scangarello, the 49ers quarterbacks coach at the time, turned to Peters and said, “Who is that quarterback?
Little did Scangarello know that the off-season would lead to his hiring as Lewis’ offensive coordinator in Kentucky, and it didn’t take long for Scangarello to realize the talent he inherited from Lewis, who went from understudy in Pennsylvania to one of the draft’s hottest commodities. The NFL, seemingly in the blink of an eye.
On the big board for the 2023 draft, Sportzshala’s Mel Keeper has a 6-foot-3, 235-pound Lewis ranked No. 4 overall and No. 2 quarterback behind Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.
One NFL personnel director who has extensively studied Lewis and seen him live this season told Sportzshala that he sees a lot of Josh Allen in the Lewis in terms of arm strength, athletic ability and physical size.
“He just needs to keep working on his composure, timing and accuracy under pressure, but he’s one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects in this class,” the HR director said. “Josh Allen also had some accuracy and timing inconsistencies, but we saw how it ended.
“As [Levis] becomes more comfortable and more rhythmic in this scheme, I feel that at the end of the season he will play even better football than what he is recording right now. He has all the physical data and a lot of pluses.
Scangarello is the fourth offensive coordinator under whom Lewis has played in as many years since his redshirt rookie season at Penn State in 2019. All systems were slightly different, even the one that Lewis played last season when Liam Cohen was head coach. Wildcats offensive coordinator. Cohen left in February to become the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator.
“Will is as talented as anyone I’ve evaluated over the past five years. The only two guys I would compare him to, if you could see it clearly, would be Joe Barrow and Josh Allen,” said Scangarello, who spent the previous five years. season in the NFL and was the 2019 Denver Broncos offensive coordinator.
“I think he’ll be number one in the draft.”
ASCENT OF LEVIS ON The pinnacle of the NFL draft boards might surprise some, but not Lewis. Even when he was relegated to running quarterback for Penn State and playing second fiddle to Sean Clifford, Lewis never doubted he was going to get his chance—somewhere.
“I have always been confident in myself. I always thought I was the best quarterback in the country and no one else was going to tell me otherwise,” said Lewis, who had only 102 assists in two seasons at Penn State. “I just needed a platform to prove it. I needed to be able to play comfortably in position at this level, and I feel like that’s something I didn’t have at Penn State.”
The Levis found that platform in Kentucky, which has won 14 of its last 17 games with Levis as quarterback and has climbed to No. 7 in the AP Poll this week, the Wildcats’ highest ranking since 1977. They’re heading to the 14th Ole Miss on Saturday (noon ET, Sportzshala).
“This guy makes everyone better. He improves your program,” said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. “There is faith. There is confidence every time he takes a picture, every time he steps back to throw. I have the opportunity to see him every day. I’m standing behind him and you know how it can be here. [in Kentucky]. It can be nasty, cold, rainy, windy, whatever, and it doesn’t matter.
“This guy is just tearing up the ball. I mean, he kicks the crap out of him.”
Which begs the question: How did Lewis manage to move from the bench at Penn State to someone who wasn’t pursued as much as moving to a quarterback who NFL scouts flock to watch the game?
Even in high school, Lewis was ignored until Penn State lost to Justin Fields and offered Lewis a scholarship. Up to this point, the schools of the Mid-American Conference have shown the greatest interest.
“We were all upset and scratching our heads because we thought the same thing about him and said: “Why is no one seeing this? What are we missing?” said Andy Guyon, who coached Lewis at Xavier High in Middletown. Connecticut.
“In the spring before his senior year, we had a lot of colleges on campus testing him, but he couldn’t get a bite. Sometimes players from the Northeast are stigmatized that we don’t play football up here. like they do in the South, Texas or California, and this guy can’t be that good.
“Well, actually, he can be that good.”
Lewis attended a Florida State camp the summer before his high school senior year and began to attract attention after he received a scholarship offer from then-former Soviet Union coach Jimbo Fischer. Shortly thereafter, Lewis visited a camp in Pennsylvania, and the Nittany Lions were looking for a quarterback after Fields was fired.
“He came in there and was off and it wasn’t hard to see how talented he was,” said Old Dominion coach Ricky Rahne, who was Penn State’s 2018 and 2019 offensive coordinator. was an incredible athlete.”
Ran approached Joe Moorehead, who was then Penn State’s offensive coordinator, and said, “Joe, we’re crazy not to propose this guy,” to which Moorehead replied, “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.” “
Lewis changed clothes in his first season at Penn State in 2018, and Moorhead left after the season for the position of Mississippi State Chief, with Rahne named offensive coordinator. He said the Nittany Lions never believed in Lewis, but rather won games against Clifford, and he was more prepared at the time to play as a starter.
“Everyone is always asking what happened and why Penn State didn’t choose Will over Sean,” Rahn said. “When we first picked Sean, Will wasn’t ready to start yet, and then it became difficult to replace the guy who won 11 games. People seem to forget about it.”
Rahne’s only question about Lewis, who Kentucky coaches and teammates readily acknowledge in playing with a linebacker mentality, was whether he could use his intelligence, competitiveness, and will to succeed to play with the resilience needed for an elite quarterback.
“Sometimes that was his biggest flaw,” Rahne said. “He wanted to be so successful that he put so much pressure on himself that sometimes it made him play a little tight. In Kentucky, he seems comfortable in his skin and they did a really good job of letting him play for free. I’m happy to see that because talent has always been around and he’s a great kid.”
After Rahne stepped down as head of the ODU, Kirk Ciarrocca became Penn State’s offensive coordinator in 2020, and nothing has changed for Lewis. Most of his playing time was spent running from the quarterback position.
It seemed clear that a transfer would be his only chance to become a starter, and after gaining an accelerated academic schedule, Lewis earned a degree in finance from Pennsylvania State University in three years. He graduated summa cum laude with a GPA of 3.97.
Lewis personally informed Pennsylvania coach James Franklin that he planned to transfer, and Lewis’s parents, Mike and Beth, who were both college athletes, met with Franklin to thank him for what he and the Pennsylvania program had done for their son. But, like in the early stages of Lewis’s high school recruitment, schools didn’t line up for his services through the transfer portal. Lewis said he heard from Rutgers, the University of California, Massachusetts and several other small schools.
“No one saw me throw it. All they saw was running,” he explained.
But Kentucky was looking for a quarterback, and Stoops had just hired Cohen as his offensive coordinator. Cohen was an assistant quarterback coach with the Rams, but he saw Lewis play in high school when Cohen coached at the University of Massachusetts and then in Maine and recruited in the New England area.
Stoops said that even with that familiarity, they had to dig through Lewis’ records at Penn State to find plays in which he made different throws.
“We knew we had to pick him up, but because of the way he was used at Penn State, you really had to look for certain shots,” Stoops said. “There was a game in Nebraska the year before, shots that we watched and saw, and confirmed what we thought. It also helped that Liam had known him since high school.”
Lewis didn’t graduate from Penn State until May 2021, so he didn’t have the opportunity to do spring practice in his freshman year in Kentucky.
“Will bet on himself. He took a risk and took a risk and it worked really well,” said Mike Lewis. “He had to go into the dressing room and in a relatively short time gain the respect and trust of his teammates and the coaching staff.”
Lewis made an immediate impression. He was named one of eight team captains and helped lead Kentucky to 10 wins for only the fourth time in school history. Succeeding in Cohen’s professional style, Lewis gave the Wildcats quarterback opportunities they had not previously had under Stoops and finished with 3,202 yards on the general offense with 24 passing touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns. He also threw 13 interceptions.
“A lot of times with interceptions, he tried to do too much, trying to fit him into a window that I shouldn’t have tried to fit him in,” said Lewis, who threw 10 touchdowns with four interceptions across four games this season.
Lewis also took a lot of hits and was fired 16 times. He has two hurrying…