Melvin Lewis never forgets where he came from.
The massive 6-foot-4, 332-pound senior defensive tackle for Kentucky relishes the chance to compete each week in the Southeastern Conference following his upbringing in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton. It's a hometown that often ranks among the 10 most dangerous cities in the United States, and there are not a lot of father-son moments that Lewis can recall.
"I went through a lot as a child," Lewis said last week at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "My father (Vernon) was in prison for about 25 years throughout his life. He was on drugs until I was in high school, but even though he went through all that stuff, he never turned his back on us.
"I can't thank him enough for that."
Lewis had plenty of opportunities to turn to drugs but used athletics to earn a spot at Fullerton College, a two-year school not far from home. In 2012, Lewis tallied 41 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks to enhance his chances of playing at a four-year institution.
Kentucky, located more than 2,100 miles from Compton, was interested.
"They were the first school to give me a hard copy of a scholarship offer," he said. "They stayed with me throughout having to make grades and all that stuff, so I feel that they were very loyal to me. I wanted to be loyal to them as well."
* Last season: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
* Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (7 p.m. on ESPNU)
* Fun fact: The Wildcats have lost 28 consecutive times to Florida dating back to 1987. They lost 26 straight to Tennessee from 1985 through 2010.
Lewis redshirted in 2013 before taking the field last season for the Wildcats and compiling 37 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He started all 12 games and is now a team leader for a program looking to end a four-year bowl drought after just missing out last year with a 5-7 record.
Joining Lewis on the defensive front last season was heralded in-state recruit Matt Elam, a 6-7, 370-pounder who got in all 12 games but had conditioning challenges and made just 10 tackles.
"Melvin has been a guy who has really tried to help Matt and give him that extra motivation, and that's what it takes," third-year Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said. "We need more and more leaders like that. We've worked extremely hard developing leadership in our program, and Melvin has been a good leader."
The Wildcats return seven players on each side of the ball with starting experience, but surpassing last season's record could be difficult. Patrick Towles and Drew Barker will compete at quarterback, with Towles having held that spot last season and completing 225 of 393 passes (57.3 percent) for 2,718 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Former Signal Mountain quarterback Reese Phillips ruptured an Achilles' tendon in March, but Stoops said Phillips would get an opportunity to compete if he's 100 percent.
The biggest challenge will be replacing defensive ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, who were drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. It's not every year the Wildcats have their two ends drafted — Dupree went in the first round — but even with that talent, Kentucky yielded 63 points to Georgia, 50 to Tennessee and 44 to Louisville in its last three games.
"We've got to bring the younger guys along," Lewis said. "You can't ever replace those guys we lost, but hopefully we can fill their spots. I definitely have to raise my level of play this season, because we lost some really good guys."
Whether the Wildcats go to a bowl this season or not, Lewis is sure to go out a winner. He has graduated with a degree in community and leadership development, and his plans after football are to return to Compton and work with children.
He's also got some younger brothers to cheer along.
"My graduation was probably the most excited I've ever been in my life," Lewis said. "I'm the first male in my family to graduate from college, and now I have a younger brother, Chris, who has graduated from junior college and is going to play football at New Mexico. My baby brother just graduated from high school, so I would like to think that I paved the way."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
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