Created: Monday, November 7, 2011 9:51 a.m. CDT

NIU has high hopes for speedy Lewis

Northern Illinois kickoff returner Tommylee Lewis (80) gets past Toledo kicker Jeremiah Detmer for his second kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter Tuesday night at the Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio. The Huskies won, 63-60. (Jeremy Wadsworth – The Blade)

DeKALB – The kid was a walk-on. Had to be. Scott Wedige remembered few 5-foot-8, 170-pound freshmen dragging pads around Huskie Stadium. None of them had a Northern Illinois scholarship.

The Huskies senior center was skeptical the opening day of fall camp in August, the first time he saw freshman receiver Tommylee Lewis. Then Wedige saw Lewis run.

“His legs were moving so fast I couldn’t even see them,” Wedige said. “I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I remember – all of us, because he came in late in the summer, we really didn’t know who he was – I thought he was a walk-on because he was 5-5, 100-and-nothing.

“But he comes in, and all of the sudden you see that kid run, and that kid is special. He’s going to be a force to reckon with in this conference for a long time.”

No one knows Lewis’ 40-yard time. Lewis said he never has run an official dash. But on the field, teammates say they’ve seen few who hit Lewis’ top speed.

“There’s definitely a level of fast,” senior linebacker Jordan Delegal said, “and he just kind of surpasses that.”

“He brings another element to the receivers as a corps,” senior wideout Willie Clark said. “Everybody knows Nathan Palmer’s pretty fast, but Tommylee gives him a run for his money.”

Clark took the politically safe, noncommittal approach when asked who was faster between Lewis and Palmer, NIU’s leading receiver who had three touchdowns, 120 yards and four catches Tuesday at Toledo. Before the season ends, Clark said he’s looking forward to closing the debate, maybe a heat race on Brigham Field.

“I’d say there’s a high chance of that happening,” Clark said.

All this is relevant, of course, because Lewis broke two kickoff returns for touchdowns to start NIU’s win Tuesday, a game televised on ESPN2. Lewis scored against Cal Poly, his first game after coach Dave Doeren discarded his redshirt in September. He hadn’t been as successful since, even muffing a kick at Buffalo the game before Toledo.

A national TV audience was stunned when Lewis returned consecutive kicks 100 and 95 yards. But this was precisely the reason Doeren decided to play the freshman this fall.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Doeren said. “I’m surprised it happened at Toledo, because I think highly of their football team. I thought it would happen earlier, to be honest with you.

“When we brought Tommylee in here – and we’re fast at receiver, I think everyone knows that – and when he got into that group in two-a-days and made plays left and right, I’m like, ‘Man, this guy’s got a different gear.’ And all the coaches knew it, we just had so many good players at receiver we didn’t want to burn his year. And after [safety] Tommy Davis was playing so many defensive snaps and we weren’t getting anything going on [kickoff return], I just made the decision that we had to play him.”

The secret is out, uncovered on national TV. Now everything returns to what Wedige said.

Will Lewis be a force to reckon with in the Mid-American Conference?

The freshman still is learning. He said he’s comfortable with only about 80 percent of NIU’s playbook, and swears this transition to college football has been harder than it’s looked. He’s not the only fast player at this level.

But he’s confident, and his goals are high.

“Honestly, I’m just going to keep working hard, and hopefully get to the point where I can be real great,” Lewis said.

Doeren doesn’t doubt it.

“Tommylee is a guy that – everyone knows – is smaller in stature and because of that has a huge chip on his shoulder about him,” said Doeren, who called Lewis the Huskies’ fastest player. “He plays way bigger than he is. He’s superaggressive, not afraid of anything or anyone. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach, Fla., where he’s from is a great program, state championship program when he was a junior.

“He’s way ahead in terms of the learning curve a high school guy would have, just because of where he’s from.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?