MADISON, Wis. — When Keontez Lewis arrived at Wisconsin as a transfer from UCLA last season, Badgers wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted viewed him as a big body with untapped big-play potential. The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder had appeared in 11 games as a true freshman for the Bruins without a reception. But he was coming to Wisconsin to be a substantial part of the offense.
Lewis made good on that hope by ranking third on the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (313) and touchdown catches (three) as part of a top group that included Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell. Whitted, like every other member of Wisconsin’s coaching staff, wasn’t retained when athletic director Chris McIntosh opted to hire Luke Fickell as coach. That meant Lewis had to prove himself all over again at a time in which the new staff brought in four wide receivers from the transfer portal.
By the end of spring practices, Lewis was working with the second-team offense. He remained in that role during preseason practices that were open to reporters. Dike began the season as a starter on the outside along with Oklahoma State transfer Bryson Green, and Cincinnati transfer Will Pauling was in the slot. The reserves on the outside were Lewis and USC transfer C.J. Williams, with Bell in the slot.
It appeared based on early practices that all six receivers were in position to play as part of the air raid offense. Lewis was listed on the depth chart as the backup receiver to Dike. But only five of them were part of the regular rotation during Wisconsin’s season-opening 38-17 victory against Buffalo. Lewis appeared for six snaps, per Pro Football Focus, late in the game with the outcome already decided. During Wisconsin’s 31-22 loss at Washington State on Saturday, Lewis did not play at all.
As a result, Lewis announced Thursday that he would be entering the transfer portal with two years of eligibility remaining. The Athletic spoke to Lewis soon after his decision for his perspective on what happened. Fickell declined a request from The Athletic for a comment through a school spokesperson. Here is the interview with Lewis:
You were earning snaps in the top two groups the first two weeks of preseason camp. When did this start to shift in your mind that coaches were only going to go with five guys?
It never really shifted honestly until after the first game. After that, then I could kind of tell a little bit. And the second game came around, it was the same thing. But stuff wasn’t communicated the right way. So that’s why I just felt like, “Hey, if I can’t be a part of something and I feel like I definitely can contribute, then it is what it is.”
So are you saying you had no idea you would not be a part of the rotation going into the first game against Buffalo?
What did receivers coach Mike Brown tell you after the Buffalo game?
He told me to be ready Week 2. Everything is going to be back to normal. He’d get me in there, this and that. Everything will be back to normal, normal rotation. So normal rotation was me playing. So that didn’t happen, as you can see.
Coaches went into the portal and got four transfers this offseason, three of whom ended up being in the top five. Did you wonder when those players arrived what your role would be?
I feel like I showed enough last season, and I feel like I’ve definitely earned that right during fall camp and spring ball.
When did you start to think about entering the portal? On Sunday?
Yeah, definitely. It’s been on my mind. It’s been lingering for a long time since these guys got here, just by the way stuff was going before. But I just stuck it out and just kept playing, kept earning my right on the field and kept making plays and stuff like that. I thought everything was going to work out.
When you say it was lingering for a while, are you talking about going back to spring ball when coaches began to put a different group in the top and you went with the second-team offense?
You can put that together. But as you can see, that move happened for no reason, too. Stuff was just happening for no reason. And I was out there still balling, still doing my thing. But true competition-wise, I don’t really know how they went about that.
Were you OK with being part of the rotation, even if you weren’t a starter?
Yeah, definitely. As long as I got snaps and was able to contribute in some type of way, I would’ve been fine.
When did you let coaches know of your decision?
I talked to coach Brown on Monday. I’ve been talking to him the past couple days. I talked to coach Fickell a little bit but mostly coach Brown.
What do you think you can provide at your next school?
As you guys see, the deep threat. I’ve been the best deep threat on this team. Route running, strong hands, trying to make those contested grabs and finishing plays down the field. Just keep being that type of guy for a team, and I’m pretty sure a team would love to have a guy like that. I showed it on film last year and this spring and fall.
Did Coach Brown give you a reason at any point for what was holding you back or what you could do better?
Honestly, a true reason to me, no. But everything he was saying, I could agree to disagree with. But the stuff he was saying, I feel like I was doing.
What did he say you weren’t doing even if you didn’t agree with it?
He didn’t really say I wasn’t doing anything, actually. It was more of like a communication standpoint, and I can’t really explain it, honestly. It’s kind of crazy.
Do you feel like you were left with no choice but to leave?
Honestly, yeah. What would you do in this position? Zero snaps. Not getting any love. You’ve got burn time the first game. They just treat you like that and you know you’re a more capable player than that. Hey, I feel like I just did what anybody would’ve done that’s in my shoes.
The transfer portal window doesn’t open until December? What’s the plan for you now?
Just taking this year off, just focusing on myself. Getting all the way back mentally, all around, just being here and being sound, being where my feet are. I’m going to keep working on my play until then, and when that time comes at the end of the year to go somewhere else, pick a new school, everything flows right.
What are you looking for in your next school?
I’m honestly looking for people that want to accept me for who I am and what I can bring to the team, a team that truly wants me and is happy with me being there.
Lastly, how will you remember your time at Wisconsin?
I got my first catch and everything here. I’ll always remember all of that last season with Coach (Paul) Chryst, Coach (Jim) Leonhard. Those guys, I’ll remember that forever.
(Top photo: Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.