Kaiwan Lewis is all business during the week.
The St. Joseph High School graduate does most of his smiling on gamedays.
"You work so hard all week that the gameday has to be fun," Lewis said by telephone Thursday night. "That's what I try to do: I just try to go out there and have fun."
Lewis is a starting middle linebacker for the University of South Carolina, one of the top college football teams in the country.
The 19-year-old from Pleasantville was part of three straight state titles at St. Joseph during his final three seasons at the Hammonton school. Now a true sophomore at South Carolina, Lewis is third on the team with 17 tackles.
South Carolina plays in the Southeastern Conference, or SEC, the consensus top league in the country. The SEC has produced the last seven national champions, including two-time defending champ Alabama. The Associated Press ranks the Gamecocks 12th in the country this week.
"It's a lot of responsibility," Lewis said of his role on such a highly regarded team. "So I'm just trying to have as much fun as I can."
Lewis was a first-team Press All-Star in 2011 and The Press co-Male Athlete of the Fall.
He is among a number of Cape-Atlantic League football players who have moved on to NCAA Division I programs in recent years.
But fewer have had as much success as quickly as Lewis. He said the difference is that some players are happy just to reach Division I.
"People begin to think that they made it. and I haven't made anything," Lewis said. "I haven't made anything. I didn't come here to just say I went to the university."
Lewis played primarily special teams last season as a freshman.
But he was named most improved linebacker during spring practice this year and has started all three games this season with the team off to a 2-1 start (1-1 SEC).
"He's a great kid," South Carolina linebackers coach and former NFL player Kirk Botkin said by telephone Sunday morning. "Last year he came in and played a lot of special teams. He wants to learn. He wants to do things the right way and he wants to be a leader.
"He has everything you want in a football player. I can't say enough about him. He's come in here and done a tremendous job for us."
Lewis is quick to praise his high school coach, St. Joe's Paul Sacco. Botkin said that you can tell Lewis came from a solid high school program.
"(St. Joseph) prepared me very well for the next level," Lewis said. "There was no lost day at St. Joseph. That kind of gave me the college feel.
"Just going to St. Joseph, with all the hard work at school and everything, I knew a little of what to expect, and I knew I had to work for everything."
With South Carolina having been off last week, Lewis surprised his former Wildcats coach and friends by flying home to attend Friday's game with Holy Spirit.
Lewis said he follows his alma mater closely despite his rigorous schedule. He was also quick to point out the parallels between St. Joseph and South Carolina.
Lewis played for a well-known coach alongside some of the best high school players in the area in his time in southern New Jersey.
At South Carolina, he plays for another legendary coach, Steve Spurrier, and works out and plays alongside players such as defensive end phenom Jadeveon Clowney.
Lewis said he tries to pick up things from teammates such as Clowney.
"Playing with great players only makes you better," Lewis said. "You have to step up to the plate to be on the field with them. God blessed him with a lot of ability and he definitely goes out there and uses it all."
Botkin said he was pleased with Lewis' maturation in just two seasons in South Carolina.
He pointed out that as the team's "mike," or middle linebacker, Lewis is responsible for calling out defenses and aligning teammates.
"We talk a lot about the little things," Botkin said. "And he understands. One of the first things I tell him as a linebacker is that your first two steps determine whether you get blocked or whether you don't get blocked. You're targeted as an inside guy."
And Lewis has stepped up to the challenge.
Lewis said his ultimate dream would be to play in the NFL, but said he focuses on preparing only for the team's next opponent, the University of Central Florida this Saturday at noon.
"I'm trying to be the best player I can be, and hopefully I can make it to the highest level I can," Lewis said. "I just want to be the best I can be and hope its God's plan for me to make it to the big league."
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