Nearly five months after his college football career came to a premature end, former University of Kentucky defensive tackle Melvin Lewis was back on the field at Nutter Field House on Friday morning, working out with his former teammates in front of about 30 NFL scouts.
Lewis suffered a broken fibula in the Wildcats’ loss to Auburn last October, an injury that ended his promising run at UK and threw his football future into question.
He spoke a few weeks later — before a senior day spent with a walking boot on his left leg — of his struggles in the immediate aftermath of that injury, and the agony of having to watch his teammates finish the season without him, knowing how much he could have helped.
On Friday, he was more upbeat.
After spending the past couple of months working out in Louisiana with legendary defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, Lewis returned to Lexington this week to take part in UK’s pro day.
“He’s doing his rehab and he’s getting better,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “I know he’s able to get out here and move around and do the drills. I think he’s where he needs to be.
“The big thing will be, once he gets into a camp, that he’s healthy and able to practice full go and give it a good shot.”
Lewis said after the pro day drills that he’s about two or three weeks from feeling 100 percent and that simply being well enough to take part in Friday’s event was a blessing.
He’s going to do everything you ask him to do. And he’s a guy that cares about the game. Here’s a guy that could have ballooned up to 360, 370 (pounds) and said, ‘I’m done.’ But he wanted to fight and come back and prove to everybody that he could get it done.
Jimmy Brumbaugh, UK defensive line coach
It wasn’t an easy road that led the 6-foot-4, 340-pound senior to this day.
Lewis spent his early years in the notoriously rough Compton, Calif., got off to a late start to his football career — basketball was his main sport growing up — and ended up going the junior-college route before he landed at Kentucky in 2013.
He was still raw when he arrived in Lexington, and he spent that first season with the Wildcats sitting out as a redshirt. Lewis blossomed in his second year at UK, starting all 12 games during the 2014 season and then manning the middle of the Cats’ defense again last season before the injury derailed his progress.
“He was very, very down,” UK defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said Friday. “And I can understand that. But he kind of reconciled and understood where he was, and really progressed from that.”
Brumbaugh, who made a surprise visit to see Lewis shortly after he started working out in Louisiana and continued to work with him this week in preparation for pro day, said the former Wildcat is also putting some videos together for NFL scouts to show his progress.
Lewis’ position coach the past three years is quick to praise his on-field ability and leadership skills to those scouts, too.
“He’s going to do everything you ask him to do,” Brumbaugh said. “And he’s a guy that cares about the game. Here’s a guy that could have ballooned up to 360, 370 (pounds) and said, ‘I’m done.’ But he wanted to fight and come back and prove to everybody that he could get it done.”
Lewis, who worked out alongside former Alabama defensive tackles and projected first-round draft picks A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed at the camp in Louisiana, isn’t sure what the NFL Draft in April will have in store for him.
If he doesn’t hear his name called in the draft, he’ll likely catch on with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d have to fight back against adversity.
“I would be a little upset, but I’ve been through it before,” Lewis said. “I mean, it wouldn’t change the way that I play or change the way that I act or anything.
“I’d just have to face it like I’ve done my whole life.”
If Lewis does get drafted? That would be a special day.
“It would mean everything,” he said. “It would let my parents know that — all the times they took me to practice and picked me up — that it was all worth it.”
When: April 28-30
Where: Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre