BETHLEHEM – Marty Mornhinweg was talking Monday about how he needs to find more touches for his backup running back.
As it happens, Correll Buckhalter is in camp with the Eagles this summer as a coaching intern. A reporter told Buckhalter what Mornhinweg said, and the reporter allowed that he had heard that before, somewhere.
Buckhalter laughed heartily.
"Haven't we all?" he asked.
For much of the time he played for the Eagles, Buckhalter labored in the shadow of Brian Westbrook, who seemed to be the perfect back for Andy Reid's West Coast system, at least until LeSean McCoy came along. Offensive coordinator Mornhinweg and head coach Reid were always talking about getting Buck more touches. Never quite seemed to happen.
Now, Buckhalter and Westbrook are retired and 2011 fifth-round draft pick Dion Lewis is McCoy's backup. Lewis carried the ball just 23 times last season, for 102 yards, as a rookie, buried behind not only behind McCoy but also behind Ronnie "Option Pass" Brown. Maybe because of that meager output, and because Lewis got shoehorned into a kick-return role that didn't really fit him, and because he was showered with bad publicity over an incident at an Albany, N.Y., hotel earlier this month, it was possible to conclude coming into Lehigh that Lewis might not be McCoy's No. 2 this year, that his roster spot might be in jeopardy.
No and no, emphatically, so far in training camp. Lewis (5-8, 195) has been one of the early stars, sharp and focused. His precise, smooth scats on screens, Lewis tucked in behind hulking linemen, have recalled Westbrook in his prime. Yes, the Eagles have two young "projects" they like at running back, seventh-round rookie Bryce Brown and undrafted rookie Chris Polk – last week we chronicled running-backs coach Ted Williams' excitement about their potential – but so far, both are way behind Lewis.
"This is a fine player, now. I've liked him since Day 1. He has shown his natural ability since Day 1. He is a tough guy," Mornhinweg said. "I've said this about a couple of running backs, including Brian Westbrook – he's probably a little shorter than one would think, but he's much BIGGER. He's a weapon both in the pass and in the run, and he's had an excellent camp up to date."
Mornhinweg said even before charges were dismissed in the alleged 4 a.m. fire-alarm pulling in Albany that the incident would have no bearing on Lewis' status with the Eagles. Lewis made it clear when he reported that he was here to work, and had no interest in rehashing how he and his brother Lamar came to be pepper-sprayed and handcuffed. He hasn't seemed bothered or distracted.
Lewis' trouble getting on the field from scrimmage as a rookie was "probably my mistake," Mornhinweg said. "Always go into a game wanting to use him just a little bit more. Then you get into a game and every play's important. And LeSean was so good last year. It was hard to take LeSean out. And it will still be hard to take LeSean out, [but] Dion has earned that role, up to date."
Lewis watches McCoy run. He understands the coaches' dilemma. But he also sees a shred of daylight for himself, in their stated desire to keep McCoy from getting ground down by overuse.
"You want to have one of your better players on the field, but at the same time, being a running back, you take a lot of hits. He probably won't get as many touches this year, but he'll still get his fair share," Lewis said. "I just have to be ready whenever my number is called, and prepare myself as if I am going to get a few touches every game."
Asked what's important for a runner executing a screen, Lewis said: "The most important thing is catching the ball. You just have to be patient and slip through when you see an opening to get out there. I just try to be patient and follow my keys."
Center Jason Kelce hasn't been surprised to see Lewis look sharp, Kelce said.
"I played against Dion every year in college," said Kelce, who played at Cincinnati while Lewis starred at Pitt. "He burned us every single year in college … he can move and shift and he's so small … he can get lost behind the bigger players."
It's a lot harder to get lost as a kickoff returner. Lewis said returning kicks "was a big learning experience." Last season, 27 returners fielded enough returns to be ranked by the league. Lewis's 21.6-yard average was 26th.
"We watched a lot tape of it in minicamps and OTAs to just try to get better," Lewis said. But there seems to be no plan to put him back there again; the Eagles have several youngsters with extensive kickoff-return experience, something Lewis lacked coming out of Pitt.
The lockout truncated a lot of things last year, and that situation was one of them; it's reasonable to think that if special-teams coordinator Bobby April had gotten an entire offseason with his charges, he wouldn't have ended up trying to teach a guy with little return experience how to do it during the season.
"There was a big learning curve coming straight off of the lockout into training camp," Lewis said.
Often on an Andy Reid team, the biggest obstacle to a running back getting on the field is pass blocking. If you can't read a blitz, keep a quarterback upright, you aren't playing. Duce Staley was outstanding as a blocker, and he passed the torch to Westbrook, who might have been even better. Westbrook worked with McCoy, who gives a game effort, even if he isn't yet at Westy's level. This has not been something Lewis has really struggled with, Mornhinweg said.
"Excellent," Mornhinweg said, when asked about Lewis as a blocker. "You've gotta have some strength to ya, and he does. Size matters only a little bit. It's technique, it's strength, and then it's a little juice for ya ... Ted Williams, all his backs that he's ever coached have been great pass protectors, and Dion's right there. He's right on target."