Focus, drive gets Travis Lewis back on the field for Oklahoma just in time
Ask senior linebacker Travis Lewis, and he will tell you without a second’s hesitation there was never any doubt he would be on the field when the top-ranked Sooners took on the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles.
“Right when I got hurt, they told me I had eight weeks,” Lewis said. “I said, ‘You have five-and-a-half to six weeks. You have until Florida State.’ ”
Being a senior captain who realized the magnitude of the Florida State game, Lewis said he simply saw no way he would be on the sideline when his teammates took the field in Doak Campbell Stadium.
However, Lewis might have been the only person in the country with confidence he would actually make a contribution against the Seminoles.
DETERMINED TO PLAY
When Lewis broke his toe during two-a-days, the word from doctors was that he could be back in eight weeks, just in time for the Red River Rivalry. Even the most optimistic prognosis had him back for the Sooners’ clash against Missouri at the earliest.
Leading up to the week of the game, coaches continually denied there was a chance of Lewis seeing the field in Tallahassee, Fla. Even after the game, coach Bob Stoops said he did not know until days before the game that Lewis would be cleared to play.
“I didn’t realize when I saw him limping last week, but he later said that was more his achilles and just from not being in the boot,” Stoops said. “He said it was more just getting loosened back up than it was his toe, which I didn’t realize.”
Lewis, true to his word, made it back in time to join his defense in what turned out to be a solid overall performance by the unit.
The senior did not make the highlight reel as much as sophomore linebacker Tom Wort or junior safety Javon Harris. However, he did tie Wort and sophomore Tony Jefferson for first on the team with eight tackles — not bad for someone who only took part in one day of practice leading up to the game.
Ask anyone on the team, though, and they will tell you Lewis means a lot more to the Sooners than statistics could ever show. For coaches, having Lewis back means they can expect more from their defense knowing they have an experienced leader on the field.
Lewis’ presence helps ensure his teammates will be in the proper position and prepared for what will be coming at them.
“He’s a very bright guy, and of course being in our system for as long as he has helps,” Stoops said. “Kiddingly, today we gave him an award for the game, and I said he’s the assistant coach on the field. He’s like that, just how hard he works at mental preparation and getting everyone lined up.”
AN ON-FIELD COACH
In many ways, Lewis does look like an extension of the OU coaching staff when he steps onto the field. He rarely stands still as he waves his hands, points out coverages and yells out to tell the defense what to expect. Lewis looks like a natural on the field as he takes charge of his defense.
However, it takes more than a loud voice and boisterous personality to become a true leader.
Seniors can yell at their teammates all they want, but for anyone to listen, respect must first be earned, Lewis said. Players have to know their leaders are willing to put in the work and have the intensity to earn a leadership role.
“That’s why it’s vital to get as much film as I do,” Lewis said. “Two hours with the coaches, two hours on my own, coming in Sunday and knocking the game film out then getting right on Missouri on Sunday. It’s a whole process of getting that much film so you can really take advantage of people’s tendencies that they have, because every team has them.”
Even when Lewis was a freshman, coaches were optimistic about his work ethic. They have noted how he is an extremely competitive player, and his own toughest critic. That work ethic played a large part in his ability to recover and contribute again so quickly.
Lewis said what he missed in practice he made up for with hours in the film room. Though he could not run, he did cardio in the pool to ensure he could make it through a whole game. He worked out four times a week and made sure he stuck to his diet.
In short, he did all of those little things a leader does.
Lewis put in the sort of work that often goes unnoticed by fans and the media, but for a defense with only three starting seniors, it was exactly the example his teammates needed him to set.
“He’s like a big brother for us,” junior defensive back Demontre Hurst said. “He’s like our coach out there. He kind of directs us a little bit, and we feed off of him.
“Once he gives us the plays, we understand what’s going on. We kind of feed off of him in practice and are really starting to be like him a lot. Him being out there just makes the game easier for all of us.”
For all that Travis Lewis brings to the Sooners — and the defense in particular — emotionally, what he brings to the team schematically cannot be understated.
When Lewis went down during the summer, the OU coaching staff was forced to shuffle a number of players on the defensive side of the ball. While the faces on the field did not change drastically, where those faces were located did.
Sophomore linebacker Corey Nelson was forced into a starting role in place of Lewis, while Harris and Jefferson had to shift positions. Lewis said his return to the lineup allows the Sooners to return everyone to their comfortable positions.
“This is a defense that gelled together in the first part of two-a-days,” he said. “We know each other. It just makes everything run a lot smoother. When we’re all out there together as a unit, we play faster and we have a different mindset.”
PLAYING HARD-NOSED FOOTBALL
It is hard to say what the defensive mindset was last Saturday in Tallahassee. Whatever it was, though, it worked, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Venables said he was proud of his team for being able to communicate and change things on the fly.
Florida State ran a lot of things the Sooners had not practiced for, he said. However, the defense was able to adjust, and — outside of one botched play — shut down everything the Seminoles threw its way.
Stoops prides his defenses on playing tough, but while this team plays with a familiar hard-nosed attitude, it also plays smart.
And playing smart translates to playing fast, which is something this defense seems to excel at.
Last year, the offense got all of the hype for being up-tempo. This year, the defense just might match that pace.
“I feel like we compliment each other very well,” Lewis said. “Our offense and defense, when we’re on the same page, we’re going to be very tough to beat.
“When we needed them they stepped up, and when they needed us we stepped up. If we keep improving and we keep the mindset that we have, we could be pretty good.”