Versatile Lewis patrols Yellow Jackets' secondary

ATLANTA - Jamal Lewis possesses a cornerback's speed and a safety's mean streak.

So naturally, he claims neither position.

"I've come to think of myself as a defensive back," the Georgia Tech star said, "because I don't know which one I truly am."

His teammates and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference know him as a strong safety, and an All-ACC one at that. Lewis starred at the position last fall, picking off three passes and scaring the pads off wide receivers assigned to run routes over the middle.

He finished with 74 tackles, third most on the team, and led the Jackets in "de-cleaters," football slang for hard hits.

Yet Lewis came up as a cornerback. The closest he'd ever come to playing safety prior to last year was nickelback, the extra corner who plays on passing downs and covers the slot receiver.

An injury to Joe Gaston midway through 2006 spring practice necessitated Lewis' move. Georgia Tech possessed greater depth at cornerback than safety, and Lewis' play at nickelback in 2005 convinced head coach Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta that Lewis was their best option at safety.

"He packs a pretty good punch for what he has," Gailey said of Lewis, who weighed 190 pounds when he made the switch. "He's a physical player, so the transition wasn't that bad. If he had been a less physical player, it would have been bad, but if he had been a less physical player, we wouldn't have moved him there to start with."

The gambit worked. Tenuta rotated three players at Lewis' cornerback spot while Lewis, free safety Djay Jones and cover corner Kenny Scott controlled the rest of the field. The Yellow Jackets ranked ninth-best in the nation in pass defense.

Strong chemistry between Jones and Lewis helped ease the transition. The two have been roommates since their freshman years at Georgia Tech, and Jones answered what few questions Lewis had about playing safety.

"Once he knew what to do, he picked it up quick," Jones said. "He's a great athlete. He has the talent to just come out and play and pick things up on the fly."

Lewis admits the adjustment was more complicated than his teammate lets on. Playing cornerback, at least in Tenuta's scheme, is simple: Cover the receiver across from you. Safeties must read and react.

"There's so much going on inside," Gailey said. "There are so many more bodies, so many more reads. Outside, you're one on one a lot. Inside, there are so many more things to think about and so many places to fit."

Lewis tailored his body to the safety position in the offseason. He's up to 205 pounds, and can still cover receivers in space. He played nickelback in certain situations last season and will likely moonlight there again this season.

He claims to be comfortable anywhere in the secondary - hence his claim as a "defensive back."

"I don't know about that," Jones said with a laugh. "He's a safety to me now, and a good one."

Injury muddles tackle situation

A.J. Smith, slated to start at right tackle, left Tuesday's practice with an injury. He grabbed his upper arm while blocking in a controlled scrimmage.

Gailey did not divulge the injury or its severity, although he speculated Smith could return later this week or early next week.

Meanwhile, Smith's back-up, Cord Howard, is dealing with academic issues. He has missed parts of several practices early in camp.

Jacob Lonowski could be Georgia Tech's stop-gap at the position. Lonowski saw action at right guard two years ago and was expected to challenge for the starting spot last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He missed spring practice, too.

Lonowski opened preseason camp last week at guard but moved to tackle Tuesday.

"We have to find who can play that spot at some point," Gailey said. "We have to see how it's going to go, how it's going to fall."

Clark misses practice

Gailey "excused from practice" cornerback Pat Clark on Tuesday. The coach did not give a reason.

Clark is competing with Jahi Word-Daniels and Avery Roberson for the two starting spots. Clark moved from wide receiver to corner in 2006 spring practice and started the first four games of 2007 before losing the job.

Tight end ailing

Colin Peek, the projected starter at tight end, sat out of practice for the third straight day as he continues to deal with a sore Achilles tendon.

Peek missed all of last season and spring practice because of a hip injury, and he "irritated" his Achilles over the weekend while doing exercises for his hip.

"He's going to be out for a little while longer," Gailey said. "I hope it's not too much longer."

Brad Sellers and Austin Barrick have split the tight-end duties in Peek's absence.

SideBar: Tech at Notre Dame

When: Sept. 1, 3:30 p.m.

Where: North Bend, Ind.