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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Earlier this season, Travis Lewis didn't know if he would ever learn the intricacies of Oklahoma's defense.
Understand that Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables' concepts are sometimes difficult to comprehend for even the most seasoned of veteran players. So some growing pains were to be expected for a redshirt freshman like Lewis who had seldom played the position before coming to college.
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|Travis Lewis (28) is looking forward to trying to slow down Florida's offense Thursday night.|
But when injuries and the struggles of others contributed to Lewis moving forward on the depth chart, he still burned with fury because he thought he hadn't won the starting job because of his play.
"Things contributed to me starting ... it wasn't me being the best option," Lewis said. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. Going through that taught me how to play with a chip on my shoulder.
"I still treat every day like I'm third on the depth chart. I think about it every day when I wake up and every day before I go to practice."
That rage has fueled a remarkable debut season for Lewis, who has developed into the most productive freshman linebacker in Oklahoma history despite his lack of playing experience at the position.
"He came from out of nowhere," Venables said. "Travis has been able to overcome his lack of experience and technique and fundamentals because he plays so incredibly hard. He's been able to cover up his mistakes because of that."
The Sooners' program has been dotted by playmaking linebackers during the era that Venables has served as the Sooners' linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Playmakers like Rocky Calmus, Teddy Lehman, Curtis Lofton and Rufus Alexander all have turned the position into one of the biggest strengths throughout the Bob Stoops era.
But none of them has had as quick a start as Lewis, who was a consensus All-Big 12 player and was named defensive newcomer of the year by the Associated Press and the league's coaches.
Amazingly, Lewis likely wouldn't have received his opportunity if it hadn't been for a freak injury several days into Oklahoma's preseason work this summer.
Early in training camp, starting weakside linebacker Austin Box slipped during non-contact drills and injured his knee. Junior college transfer Mike Balogun took over the position for several weeks, but was yanked from the lineup the week before the Sooners' opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga because he was having trouble keeping up with some of the assignments.
That led Venables to start Lewis for a simple reason.
"He was the one who was less lost out there," Venables said. "I guess he was the lesser of any evils."
It also didn't hurt that the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Lewis possesses freakish 4.34 speed in the 40-yard dash -- a remarkable time for a linebacker.
Before coming to Oklahoma, Lewis had never played linebacker in his football career. He was more widely known as a running back at Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, where he rushed for 1,436 yards as a senior.
"It wasn't like he had this pedigree coming into the thing," Venables said. "Travis played better than any other freshman linebacker we've ever had and we've had to ask more of Travis than anybody else. We had to ask him to learn not just to think for himself but also for everybody else."
The demands on him intensified when starting middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds tore an ACL against Texas in the fifth game of the season. That left Lewis, only a few weeks removed from struggling with his own early jitters, to now calling assignments as he recognized
offensive formations and relayed the calls to his more-experienced teammates.
"We missed Ryan because he was so assignment good," Venables said. "It was a lot to ask of Travis, but he stepped up and played just like we would have hoped."
Lewis finished with a season-best 19 tackles in the game where Reynolds was injured. And he continued his performance as the season continued, breaking Brian Bosworth's school record for freshman tackles as he finished the season with 137.
But his development as a leader has been even more remarkable. The initially reticent Lewis has become actively involved in making Oklahoma's defensive calls.
"He's put a lot of stuff on his shoulders," Venables said. "We've never had a freshman do the things he's had to do mentally. And he's done pretty well at it, too."
Lewis' role in the defense will be particularly big Thursday night as the Sooners attempt to contain Florida's run-heavy offense keyed by quarterback Tim Tebow.
The Gators like to use option elements with Tebow as the primary ball carrier. It will pose a big challenge for Lewis and an Oklahoma defense that has been the butt of jokes from some Gators earlier this week.
But the same freshman who wondered if he would ever play earlier this season is relishing his opportunity to challenge the bullish 240-pound Tebow in space in the biggest game this season.
In the process, Lewis hopes his team will be able to claim some respect despite some uneven performances this season. The Sooners allowed more than 400 yards per game to Big 12 opponents, but led the nation in turnover margin and ranked third nationally in sacks.
"Tebow's a pretty big guy and he's really an athletic quarterback," Lewis said. "He has the ability to find holes and get between the tackles. I'm looking forward to the challenge. And I guarantee I'm going to bring the hammer when I face him."