The kicker masquerading as a linebacker: Inside Parker Lewis’ eventful — and successful — start to the 2021 season

Self-proclaimed “gym rat” and sophomore kicker Parker Lewis has done his job quite well so far, and he’s been at the center of a whole lot else.

A photo of USC sophomore Parker Lewis attempting a kick in a white jersey, cardinal helmet and gold pants.

Parker Lewis took his spot a few steps behind Colorado’s 40-yard line, preparing to attempt his third field goal of the game Saturday in Boulder. Let’s not overdramatize the stakes: It was a relatively low-pressure kick. USC already led by two scores, and the Buffaloes had been able to muster almost nothing on offense to that point. A second-half comeback felt exceedingly unlikely, regardless of the kick’s veracity. Lo and behold, USC ended up winning by 23 points.

The snap was clean, as was the hold. But the kick? Clean is an understatement. It was kind of nasty.

Lewis’ right-down-the-middle 49-yarder from the right hash looked like it would’ve been good from 59, or maybe more. And it wasn’t just the thin Rocky Mountain air that sent the ball flying off the sophomore’s right leg. We’ve seen it before — the kind of kick that makes Lewis seem like a show-off, the kind that reinforces football’s need for a set of uprights that doesn’t meet again at the top with an upper crossbar to complete the rectangle.

“I’ve been blessed physically, but I do a lot of extra work in the weight room,” Lewis told Annenberg Media after the game. “I’m a gym rat.”

Perhaps that rodentian work ethic largely contributed to getting Lewis where he is now.

Lewis is responsible for arguably the most surprising depth chart decision in advance of USC’s 2020 season opener. The then-freshman usurped veteran Chase McGrath, author of some of the most dramatic moments from a recent USC history in which dramatic moments were sparse: McGrath’s 52-yard field goal against BYU in 2019 that ultimately brought the game to an ill-fated overtime. His 31-yarder at the buzzer to force overtime against Texas in 2017, or the 43-yarder to officially stave off that upset in double-overtime. His 5-for-5 performance against UNLV in 2018, four of which were from at least 35 yards out.

But it was Lewis’ leg in training camp that wowed USC’s coaching staff and ultimately won him the job. The presumed philosophy: Power is unteachable, and the rest will come.

The early returns were middling. It was hard to doubt the raw strength that Lewis’ right leg possessed, but the accuracy wasn’t quite there. Despite an impressive season-long of 48 yards, he went just 9-for-13 in his freshman year, along with a pair of out-of-bounds kickoffs.

But things have turned around so far in 2021. Lewis’ 49-yarder on Saturday was his third successful field goal attempt of the game and his ninth in nine attempts on the season — and, for good measure, he hasn’t missed a PAT in his first 16 attempts.

“Honestly, just working with [redshirt senior long snapper] Damon [Johnson] and [redshirt junior punter/holder] Ben [Griffiths],” Lewis said when asked about the source of his early season success. “I work religiously with them throughout the week. And focusing on what I need to improve on and what I’m gonna do to get myself and the team the best opportunity to score. That’s one thing I’ve honed in on this season. So I feel really good.”

But the credit can’t go entirely to the snapper and holder, though each is one of the best in college football at his respective position. Lewis was a near-perfect 7-for-8 on touchbacks in Boulder, giving the Buffaloes poor field position and their fans even more reason to doubt their team’s inept offensive attack. And to any weird Mile High Truthers looking to downplay it due to the altitude, good luck explaining his 13-for-17 touchback rate in the first four games of the season, each of which were much closer to sea level.

He’s also had probably the most eventful start to a season by a kicker in college football history. In fact, that was true before Week 5.

Lewis — reminder, as a kicker — had already amassed a targeting penalty, a solo tackle and a fumble recovery through USC’s first four games of the season — as a kicker. The timing was notable, too: The targeting call came on the opening kickoff of USC’s blowout loss to Stanford that eventually got Clay Helton fired, and the fumble recovery came on the opening kickoff in the second half against Washington State that ignited the Trojans’ 28-0 third quarter and, of course, Dart-mania.

Although, objectively speaking, no one should be surprised Lewis is always at the center of attention.

That’s just what linebackers do.

“I’ve always been one of those guys that likes kinda all the pressure on me,” Lewis said. “It’s been funny ‘cause coaches are coming up to me, and they’re like, ‘You have, like, linebacker stats.’ Yeah, no, it’s been really fun.”

Apparently, his new interim head coach is one of those who share that sentiment.

“He’s built like an inside linebacker,” Williams said in Saturday’s postgame press conference. “You watch him in there lift weights, you see what I’m talking about … That’s why all the kickoffs were touchbacks and everything else. His leg is strong and it’s strong enough to make these, whether we’re here or we’re back in the Coliseum.”

Despite almost always being the leading scorers on their respective teams, kickers aren’t exactly placed on a pedestal or thrown into the spotlight too often. That’s especially true on a team that boasts potential 2022 first-round NFL talent in the form of two Drakes: junior receiver Drake London and junior linebacker Drake Jackson.

Lewis may not play a widely-recognized position like either of the Drakes — kickers only seem to be noticed when they screw up — but his flashy leg strength, successful field goal kicking and contributions more typical of a linebacker are making it hard not to notice him this season.

Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker set the NFL record with a remarkable 66-yard field goal last weekend. Lewis may not top that this year, but perhaps only because the Trojans are extremely unlikely to line up for a field goal in their own territory.

If they do, who knows? Maybe Lewis beats it. If not — maybe he still will, though unofficially. It just might come on a 49-yarder that would’ve been good from 18 further.

It’s the kind of kick that Lewis likes to make look easy, the kind that’s made kicker one of the most reliable positions on USC’s entire roster this season.

Good thing there’s no upper crossbar.