Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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From savant to scapegoat to savior? Sean Lewis takes over San Diego State ready to lead Aztecs into new era

It was the best September of Sean Lewis’ career. In the month that hijacked the entire sport last season, Lewis stood as Deion Sanders’ silent partner. While Colorado and Coach Prime were must-see TV, Lewis was CU’s straight man.

Tall, rangy and unassuming, Lewis was the offensive coordinator for a unit that averaged more than 32 points per game across that month. It was Lewis who initially made Shedeur Sanders a star at the highest level. It was Lewis who was behind a school-record 510 yards passing in the opener against TCU. It was Lewis who helped cash the checks that Coach Prime could only write with his boasts.

Just don’t ask him about it now.

“I mean, it was everyone else,” said Lewis, deflecting the praise.

Deflection is a theme for San Diego State’s new coach — unless you want to actually talk about the Aztecs. That will have to wait. The story is how Lewis got to SDSU.

At 37 years old, he might as well have been the best assistant coach you never noticed last season. But in a matter of three months, Lewis was both the offensive puppet master behind Colorado’s turnaround, and eventually, a scapegoat for the season-ending slump. At least from Deion’s angle.

Lewis didn’t get enough credit for the start but got too much of the blame in the end. Sanders took away his play calling duties on Nov. 3, 2023, elevating offensive quality control analyst Pat Shurmur.

It’s fair to say there was outrage within the coaching profession. Lewis had developed into a bit of an offensive savant; he worked his way up as a grinder who sold office supplies out of college. A former 6-foot-7 tight end at Wisconsin, he was innovative while leading Kent State to its first-ever bowl win in 2019.

But Lewis and Colorado was a May-December romance, only this one lasted from September to November. Midseason assistant coach firings are always uncomfortable. You know the drill. Coach X gets all the blame for the poor performance on one side of the ball, typically after an embarrassing loss.

This one didn’t make much sense (nor was it a firing).

“I think the importance of being a young, dumb head coach and being able to make some mistakes at the beginning,” Lewis said of his career experience. “If you asked me, I probably prioritized the ball and thought you could probably scheme everyone to death. Obviously that’s important, but learning the CEO leadership approach, how important it is, [that is important, too].”

Given Sanders’ high profile, Lewis’ demotion was one of the biggest stories of the season. Lewis had made his bones as Dino Babers’ co-offensive coordinator at Syracuse. Then he turned water into wine for five seasons at Kent State going 24-31. The record shouldn’t derail the narrative. His offense led the nation in scoring during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.

Leaving a head coaching job to be part of Sanders’ flip as a coordinator was going to be a wild ride if nothing else.  

“I think he knew was taking a chance. He took the chance; it didn’t pay off,” Babers told CBS Sports. “I also think that people could look and see those first months and first couple of games in September and say, ‘Wow, this guy knows what he is doing.

“I think that’s what SDSU is buying.'”

Lewis wasn’t out of a job when he was demoted; hung out to dry was more like it. Shurmur took over play calling while Lewis stayed on staff, but the slight was obvious. It took about a month after the demotion before Lewis was announced at SDSU. 

“I didn’t put much stock into [how Lewis left],” Aztecs athletic director J.D. Wicker said.

Why should he? San Diego State needed a reset itself. When Brady Hoke retired, well, let’s just say it was time. The Aztecs needed to become exciting again, especially in a new stadium at a time when a move to the Pac-12 had been an option as recently as last summer.

The program’s legacy is offense — from hall of fame coach Don Coryell to former Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe to Super Bowl champion Marshall Faulk to NCAA rushing leaders Rashaad Penny and Donnell Pumphrey. Lewis’ label for his offense has morphed from “Flash Fast” to “CU Fast” to “Aztec Fast.”

Colorado finished 19th nationally and third in the Pac-12 in plays per game last season. Lewis’ last Kent State team in 2022 ran a play every 21.70 seconds. That’s fast. South Florida, which led the country in plays per game in 2023, averaged a snap every 21.67 seconds.

“I still think we have a competitive advantage with the tempo and pace with which we play,” Lewis said.

The Buffs saw their sheen get worn down as the season progressed, losing their last six games. Someone had to be blamed. But Colorado and the (old) Pac-12 isn’t the head-chopping SEC. This was Sanders’ first year at a Power Five school. Then again, continuity was certainly not on the CU letterhead. Sanders had brought in 87 new faces (recruits and transfers) attempting to pull off the swiftest one-year flip in the history of the game.

What Sanders didn’t account for was a dearth of Power Five-worthy offensive linemen in the transfer portal. Shedeur frequently ran for his life. Colorado was second-to-last in sacks allowed. The 492 yards given up on sacks were the most nationally since at least 2008.

“People always knew that Sean would land on his feet,” said Babers, now the Arizona offensive coordinator. “He’s a very loyal person who is an independent thinker.”

That offense will entertain, which is key when schools like SDSU can legitimately sell chasing a berth in the expanded College Football Playoff.

“We just tried to keep our chin to our chest the best we could and continue to get better,” Lewis said. “Just try to put the tunnel vision on as ball coaches do and kind of live in our bubble.”

In the end, ball don’t lie. Lewis averaged 32.1 points overall as the play caller; Shurmur averaged 20.3. Colorado finished last in the Big 12 in 2024 recruiting cycle (119th overall), per the 247Sports’ composite team rankings. The site lists no Colorado commits for the 2025 class.

Shortly before Lewis’ name surfaced at San Diego State, 2025 Colorado quarterback recruit Danny O’Neil told the Indianapolis Star he decommitted citing “instability across the board” at CU.  O’Neil committed to San Diego State in December.

Babers saw something in a really young coach when he hired Lewis, then 25, at Eastern Illinois in 2012. Lewis was the wide receivers coach, but Babers gives him credit for helping refine a quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo.

Lewis may not have known a lot at that point, but he could rebound.

“He was tall,” Babers recalled. “He was a decent basketball pick up on the noon team [among coaches]. He was in a run-dominant program [at Wisconsin], and yet, now you’ve got him out here doing wide open no-huddle cutting edge offensive stuff. Just shows you how you can be green and grow and not red and rotten and keep getting better at your craft.”

How hard can the SDSU job be? Lewis’ Kent State record has to be viewed through a different lens. To balance the budget, Lewis had to play the equivalent of a regular season (12 games) against Power Five giants in the nonconference slate. The Flashes went 0-12 in those games, getting outscored by an average of almost four touchdowns per game.

Lewis was recently asked at a speaking engagement about this year’s schedule that includes Oregon State, Washington State and California. His last year at Kent State included games at Washington, at Oklahoma and at Georgia.

“I’m feeling pretty good about things right now,” Wicker recalled his coach saying.

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