NORMAN, Okla. -- Ronnell Lewis probably could have danced to celebrate his special teams dominance of Stanford in the Sun Bowl -- twice leveling kick returners and making everyone who watched wince. He could have done it again when he slammed Cardinal fullback Owen Marecic to the turf after an incomplete pass later in the game.
He didn’t. Didn’t do it after plowing full-speed into Kansas receiver Dezmon Briscoe’s chest on a return earlier in the season, either. That hit, Lewis’ favorite as a Sooner, forced Briscoe briefly to the sidelines while the Jayhawk offense took the field.
No one would have blamed him for pumping a fist or screaming at his opponent lying below him. But he backed off, and even a parade of helmet slaps and playful shoulder shoves from teammates could barely slow his retreat to the huddle or sideline, each time itching to do it again.
“I go out there and hit and that’s all the talking I do,” Lewis said. “I’m no trash talker.”
Lewis, a sophomore, could get a lot more chances to do his talking in 2010, with two linebacker spots vacated by Ryan Reynolds and Keenan Clayton. Lewis is working at both inside and outside linebacker this spring, and could permanently assume one of those spots this fall.
“He’ll be a big part of what we’re doing,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “We’d be fools not to include him.”
Lewis’ persona, one Venables labels “mature” and “low maintenance,” stems from his roots in Dewar, Okla., the 919-person town where Lewis played eight-man football until his senior season, when the team upgraded to the 11-man game. Lewis treks 100 miles west virtually every weekend, back to the people he grew up around and a son he’s helping grow up.
“He doesn’t have a real big social network,” Venables said. “When he’s not doing school or football, that’s where he is.”
His family, friends and Dewar natives don’t recognize him as “The Hammer,” the nickname Lewis’ hits earned him and one he calls just “all right.” But when he is recognized in Norman or Oklahoma City, the country kid in him takes over, the one who wouldn’t dare be rude to a stranger, provided they weren’t trying to return a kickoff.
“All I can do is tip my hat and say, ‘Thanks,’” he said. “That was then. This is now. I’m looking forward to next season.”
For Lewis, it would be tough not to want 2010 to arrive quickly. It could be the one that establishes him as another great Oklahoma linebacker.
“He’s helped us by picking things up a lot better,” Venables said. “We talked about that today -- what it’s like sitting in the meeting room today versus last spring, and he’ll continue that development and making those leaps and bounds of improvement mentally. That will transition to physical play, to be more sure of himself and be more consistent.”
Getting a chance to showcase that improvement will mean a spring and fall spent proving he’s the one who should be sitting atop one of the depth chart spots at linebacker for a talented corps which also features the more experienced juniors Travis Lewis and Austin Box, as well as sophomores Jaydan Bird and Daniel Franklin.
“It’s one thing to go out there on special teams … and occasionally get out there when you’re ahead by three touchdowns,” Venables said. “It’s another thing to prepare and invest and play at a high level. It takes a lot -- it takes a huge commitment and the discipline to do it with consistency every day. It is a process. If anywhere along the line guys don’t invest in the process, you’ll get exposed.”
If that preparation goes as Venables hopes it does, and 2010 is a season of success for the sophomore linebacker, Lewis won’t be the one letting everyone know it.