How did LaTroy Lewis slip through the cracks?

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 12: Linebacker LaTroy Lewis
GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 12: Linebacker LaTroy Lewis /

Undrafted free agent linebacker LaTroy Lewis had a great first preseason game for the Oakland Raiders. How did he end up slipping through the cracks?

One of the young players to really make a name for himself in the first preseason game for the 2017 Oakland Raiders was undrafted free agent linebacker LaTroy Lewis out of Tennessee. He had impressed in minicamp, earning a three-year, $1,665,000 contract with the club.

In his preseason debut, Lewis had four tackles and two quarterback sacks. He was relentless in pursuit, bringing Cardinals third-string quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the ground twice. Lewis played with a high motor to be able to bring down the mobile former first-round quarterback. One has to wonder how did Lewis end up slipping through the cracks.

Lewis wasn’t seen as a high-end recruit coming out of Akron in the 2012 high school class. He was  largely seen as a three-star, top-35 defensive end in the country. Lewis would sign with the Tennessee Volunteers and redshirted in 2012.

His time in Knoxville saw a bit of a resurgence in Tennessee football. The Volunteers went from rancid to a respectable SEC East program under head coach Butch Jones. Jones’ greatest strength as a coach is in the recruiting department. Since Lewis was somewhat under-recruited, he would end up buried on the Volunteers defensive depth chart.

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While he was a productive player when he got ample playing time, Lewis managed just 10 starts in his five years at Tennessee. His best season for the Volunteers was his redshirt senior season in 2016 when he posted 36 combined tackles, 4.0 for a loss of yardage and 2.5 quarterback sacks.

With only 77 career tackles and 4.5 career sacks, that shouldn’t come as a shocker for why Lewis went undrafted. He simply did not resonate at a blue-blood SEC program. Sure, Tennessee might have had better defensive talent over Lewis, most notably defensive end Derek Barnett now with the Philadelphia Eagles. However, there is belief that scheme fit might have been an issue in Knoxville.

A major criticism of Volunteers football under Jones is that he’ll recruit high-end players that don’t fit the team’s scheme on either side of the ball. One prime example of this is he recruit in-state running back Jalen Hurd to run in a single-back set, something Hurd didn’t do well and had no interest doing. He would transfer to Baylor and plays wide receiver for Matt Rhule’s program.

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Of course, it’s not to the degree of Hurd, but one has to wonder if Jones got the most out of Lewis in Knoxville. Clearly not, as Lewis was able to thrive in Ken Norton Jr.’s scheme in one preseason game in Oakland.

It helps to have pro’s pros like Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack in the linebackers room to help bring this young kid along.

Oakland is looking to win on defense with an ample supply of pass-rushing linebackers coming off the edge. With Lewis getting a three-year contract out of rookie camp, he’s certainly part of general manager Reggie McKenzie‘s plans in the long-term.

One interesting thing to point out is that Lewis and McKenzie share the same alma mater. McKenzie is a Knoxville native and played his college ball for the Volunteers in the early 1980s. He would play seven NFL seasons at inside linebacker, mostly with the Los Angeles Raiders.

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Overall, the SEC is a talent-rich Power 5 football program, but not very well coached one. After Nick Saban at Alabama, who is the second best head coach in the SEC? Exactly. In a way, Lewis feels like he’s one of McKenzie’s guys and that’s a great thing for him and the Silver and Black. Look for Lewis to be an interesting developmental project for Norton this season and next.