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OU Football 2011 - The Enigma that is Ronnell Lewis

Can "The Hammer" become the player so many OU fans expected him to be.
Can "The Hammer" become the player so many OU fans expected him to be.

On just about every team that has as passionate a fan base as that of Sooner Nation, there is inevitably at least one player that the fans just gravitate to.  They aren't always the best player necessarily, but they just have that indefinable quality that demands the fan base's attention.  Ever since his arrival in Norman and the whispers began to leak out about his freakish physical ability, Ronnell Lewis has unquestionably been one of those types of players for the Sooners.  The expectations of his potential greatness don't make Ronnell Lewis unique when it comes to college football.  Football programs like the one at the University of Oklahoma are filled with talented young men who, fairly or unfairly, have heaped upon them massive expectations by a rabid fan base.  However, there are several things about Lewis that does make him unique.  The fact that he comes from a town of about 1,000 people.  Primarily played 8-man football during high school.  And the fact that he's one of the most athletically gifted players on a team full of some of the best former high school recruits in the country. 

These are just some of the things that make Ronnell Lewis unique and what caused many in Sooner Nation to become such a big fan of the young man.  It was his improbable story surrounding his arrival in Norman along with the absolute force of physical nature he became on the football field that got OU fans so excited.  Well, that and his performance in the Sun Bowl when he so emphatically made his presence known at the expense of a couple very unfortunate Stanford Cardinals.

Honestly, any excuse one can find to post that video again is always a good thing.  And yet for all his physical gifts, Lewis has yet to really establish himself since that game against Stanford.  He's had flashes of dominance, like at times against Nebraska in the Big XII championship game last year, but nowhere near what so many expected of him heading into last year.

His struggles to find, or the coaches to find (depending on how you want to look at it) a position for him have been well documented.  What made things even more frustrating for OU fans was the repeated insistence from the coaches that Lewis was simply too talented to not be on the field, while they continued to rotate him at multiple positions.  Lewis was open; during an interview last year, about his frustrations while trying to learn the intricacies of all those different positions and expressed the desire to be given one assignment and perfect it.  Eventually both he and the coaches were able to get on the same page and it appears he has found a home now at defensive end.  Unfortunately last year he was usually playing behind two long time starters in Jeremy Beal and Frank Alexander, so there were many times where he wasn't even on the field.  However with Beal now gone and in spite of the scary neck injury he suffered in last year's Fiesta Bowl, the starting DE spot opposite Alexander is his to lose.  However as of late, the question wasn't so much how good Lewis could become but rather will he reach what many to believe his full potential?

For anyone out there who closely follows the OU program, you'll be familiar with the issues surrounding Lewis and his grades.  The rumors have been there for some time and while there is plenty of debate as to the seriousness of his troubles, there has never been any acknowledgement of them publicly by he or the coaches so I'll leave the speculation to someone else.  That said, if (and I stress the word IF because I'm not saying they will or they won't) his grades were to cost him any extended playing time it would be a terrible loss for something that seems relatively simple to maintain if you're just willing to put in the hard work.  I firmly believe Lewis to be an intelligent person, as pretty much anyone who has ever interviewed him has found him to be a very well spoken and smart individual.  So why would he possibly allow his grades to potentially keep him from playing and even more to the point potentially cost him an opportunity in the NFL?

So then imagine my surprise late last week when ESPiN hairdo Mel Kiper Jr. releases his 2012 top juniors by position ($) and (SPOILER ALERT) I see the name Ronnell Lewis at #1 for his outside linebackers.  To be fair my surprise didn't really have anything to do with not believing Lewis capable of being that kind of player, but up to this point (even being as big a fan of his as I am) I'm just not seeing what he's done to justify such a lofty ranking.  Now there is certainly an argument to be made as far as how seriously you want to take any kind of ranking that Kiper puts out, but it's still coming from the self proclaimed worldwide leader so there is at least a manufactured perceived level of legitimacy attached to it.  So despite the fact that Lewis has yet to really become a dominant player, his potential and athleticism have apparently impressed Kiper enough to put him atop his list of OLBs.  It's interesting for a bunch of reasons, but the one that stands out is the fact that the OLB position that Lewis projects to play on Sundays is one that is highly sought after and very well compensated.  An outside rush LB/DE is a coveted spot on an NFL defense and to give Lewis the distinction of being the top junior prospect at such a highly sought after position is no small statement.

Taking everything above into account, this OU fan came to a surprising and potentially very disappointing possibility.  Could we about to witness the final year of Ronnell Lewis in an OU uniform? 

I don't think it's a leap on my part, and certainly not intended as an insult to the young man, to say that he's not a huge fan of the academic side of college football.  Definitely not a crime as there are plenty of kids, both athlete and non alike, that don't love going to class.  The demands on a college athlete's time, let alone one in a football program the caliber of OU, are substantial and I think we're all well aware of that.  So in saying that, if you choose to believe it true with respect to Lewis, it doesn't take a genius to add two and two together.  You've got a kid that isn't the biggest fan of going to class every day and by at least one guy's standard is a pretty highly regarded NFL prospect.  The fear, at least for this OU fan, is that if at the end of this coming season Lewis is still projected as highly as he is now that he'll leave Norman early.

Now if he has a breakout season, like so many are hoping, and gets double digit sacks he'll probably have a pretty easy decision to make.  However if he has another good but not great year like he did last year, I can't believe I'd be the only one disappointed if he chose to bolt early before we really got to see just how good he can be.  Maybe I'm just naive, but I don't think this was a decision many OU fans were expecting Lewis to have to make at the end of this year.  Maybe it never comes to that, though hopefully not at the expense of him having a great season.  Regardless of however things play out, Lewis will make the decision he feel is best for him and his family and Sooner Nation will come to accept it as they have and will continue to do. 

It's the nature of the beast with this game we all love so much, eventually they all have to leave.  Some players just captivate the fans more than others while they're here, OU fans know this quite well as we've been pretty spoiled to have more than our fair share.  I think Lewis definitely falls into that category and I know Sooner Nation is hoping he doesn't fall into the category of captivating players who never lives up to the hype.  Maybe Lewis will have the dominant season so many Sooner fans believe he's capable of and maybe it will be his final one in the crimson and cream?  Only time will tell of course, but the excitement of knowing where he is on the field every time he's out there, other than just on kickoffs, is the goal and a big step towards maximizing his ability and becoming the dominant defender so many OU fans believe him to be.