September 26, 2006
DURHAM -- Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis apparently will suffer no long-term harm from the vicious late hit that knocked him out of the Blue Devils' 36-0 loss to Virginia Tech.
The true freshman from Florida, who earned the starting job with a 300-yard passing performance at Wake Forest, suffered a concussion from the late blow to the head from Tech rover Aaron Rouse, but Lewis was back at practice four days later. With an off-week for the Devils on Sept. 23, he almost certainly will be in the starting lineup for Duke's Sept. 30 home game against Virginia.
"I'm good. I'm feeling really good, actually," Lewis said four days after the Tech game. "The recovery was OK. Nothing was broken."
Lewis is lucky. The hit by Rouse could have caused serious damage. It was the kind of blow that almost always earns NFL defenders a hefty fine and often a suspension, but the only punishment for the Tech senior was a series of sprints he was required to run by coach Frank Beamer as punishment for earning a 15-yard personal foul penalty.
Rouse actually earned two personals against Duke, two of the three the Hokies earned for late hits. All of the hits were on Lewis, in a span of 20 minutes to open the game.
It looked to be a calculated assault on the young quarterback, but Duke coach Ted Roof refused to make any public complaints about Rouse or his actions. Nor did he push the conference office to pursue the matter.
"The referees threw the flag, and it was pretty flagrant," Roof said. "But I just don't want to focus on making that a big issue. That's not why we lost the game or anything like that. It's just an unfortunate thing that happened, and I expect the officials to protect all the players."
The concern at Duke has to be for Lewis' long-term health. With the Blue Devils' porous offensive line, the mobile young quarterback is going to take more hard hits -- and even clean hits can cause damage. Tech sacked Lewis and backup Marcus Jones eight times in Blacksburg.
What will the cumulative effect be of the pounding Lewis is likely to take, and can the young quarterback learn to protect himself better?
"My coaches are telling me that I need to learn how to slide sometimes," Lewis said, "instead of going in head-first."
But he never got that chance against Rouse.
"I didn't really see it coming," Lewis said. "I was focusing on my teammate. I saw him catch the ball, and then I got hit. It's out of my hands. I can't do anything about it, but I guess it's all just a part of football."
ROSTER MOSTLY MISSED REDSHIRTS
One reason the Rouse hit on Lewis got so much attention was the extraordinary ground-level shot that the Raycom/Lincoln Financial (which acquired Jefferson-Pilot) network crew shot from directly behind Lewis.
Replayed countless times, the shot shows Lewis release the pass, pull up and apparently relax (his shoulder pans drop), while Rouse measures his target, takes two steps, then lowers his head at the last moment to deliver the blow with the top of his helmet.
As good as the visuals have been on the early Raycom/Lincoln Financial telecasts, the commentary often leaves something to be desired. For instance, play-by-play man Steve Martin was way off-base during the Duke-Wake Forest game when he talked about Roof's rebuilding efforts. Martin suggested that Roof was following the same strategy used by Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, namely redshirting almost all of his recruits.
In fact, Roof has taken an entirely different course. He's redshirted less of his recruits in the last three seasons than any coach in Division I-A football. The coach played 14 of his 24 true freshmen in 2004, then 14 of 25 in 2005.
So far this season, Roof has used six true freshmen: Lewis at quarterback, fullback Brandon King, cornerback Leon Wright, safety Catron Gainey, offensive tackle Jarrod Holt and linebacker Vincent Rey. Several more are likely to play in coming weeks. Look for wide receivers Sheldon Bell and/or Jeremy Ringfield, defensive tackle Brandon Harper, at least one of three tight ends (William Ball, Brett Huffman, John Lubischer), and another offensive lineman (Jeffrey Cowart? Mitchell Lenderman?) or two.
When you look at the upperclassmen on Duke's current two-deep, you see few redshirted players. All-ACC cornerback John Talley played in 12 games as a true freshman in 2003. Senior starters Casey Camero and Jeremy Edwards played as true freshmen. So did senior Deonto McCormick, although he got a redshirt year when he was suspended from the program for a year. Junior starters Patrick Bailey, Justin Boyle, Chris Davis, Ronnie Drummer and Jomar Wright all played right away.
The point is that Roof has used his best prospects as true freshmen. The most significant redshirts in the last two years have been forced on him by injuries. Defensive linemen Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk were on the two-deep in preseason last year. The only reason they didn't play was because both were hurt. Marcus Lind, a prime offensive tackle prospect in this class, probably would have seen action this year if he had not undergone preseason surgery.
It's possible to debate the wisdom -- and necessity -- of Roof's actions, but by no rational stretch of the imagination can it be compared (as Martin did) to Grobe's strategy.
OGHOBAASE BECOMING REAL DEAL
One cynical writer joked before the Richmond opener this season that he didn't believe Vince Oghobaase actually existed and was, in fact, a myth, like the Yeti or Bigfoot.
Oghobaase is the most celebrated recruit Duke has landed in many, many years, a defensive tackle out of Houston who had offers from Miami and Oklahoma. He enrolled at Duke in January 2005 and was supposed to have an immediate impact on the Blue Devils' lagging fortunes.
Instead, Oghobaase suffered a mysterious leg injury that sidelined him that first spring. The injury was reported to be minor, but it lingered into the fall. It ultimately became a running joke. Every week Roof was asked about his potential star, and every week Oghobaase was "almost" ready to play. Only he never got in a game and was redshirted.
The big (6-6, 310) tackle finally appeared as a starter in the Richmond game to open the 2006 season. Oghobaase went most of the way and was in on three tackles, including one for loss. He was a bit more impressive against Wake Forest, getting in on five tackles, including the first sack of his career. He added two more tackles against Virginia Tech and was instrumental in Duke's relative success at stopping the Hokies' ground game. Although he hasn't been making a lot of tackles himself, he's been hard to move out of the way and thus has provided good protection for Duke's linebackers.
After three games, the Blue Devils were ranked a respectable 37th nationally against the run, allowing 88 yards per game. That was a big improvement over a year ago, when Duke ranked 108th nationally, after giving up 207.3 yards per game on the ground.
Of course, that improvement is not entirely because of Oghobaase, but he's a big part of it. And while that may not be quite enough to confirm the lofty expectations that surrounded the big tackle upon his arrival at Duke, it's pretty solid evidence that he does exist after all, and that he will be a player to watch, now that he's finally been seen on game days.