Thaddeus Lewis - SR
Sean Renfree - Fr*
Sean Schroeder - Fr
For the first time in his career, Duke starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis finds himself in the position of teacher. That may seem a bit odd for a nearly three year starter, but in each of the previous three seasons, Lewis has been forced to learn a new offensive system. That constant change not only limited Lewis' ability to diversify his team's offensive attack, but also prevented him from obtaining the kind of deep understanding that would allow him to impart his experience and wisdom to younger players behind him.
"He feels like a veteran, finally. He's all smiles out there," said head coach David Cutcliffe of his quarterback. "It's just part of mastering the game. He's got a certain toughness about him. He's out there coaching freshman players, coaching the receivers. Until now he's never had that chance."
Toughness has certainly been a necessity for Lewis in his first three seasons in Durham - especially the first two when the Miami native was sacked more times than any other signal caller in the conference. However, as his understanding of the position has increased over the past two years, Lewis' sack numbers have decreased - something that Cutcliffe points to as a big indicator for his offensive success. Not to mention the team's success as there is very little in the way of experience when going down the depth chart at quarterback.
"He was sacked 45 times as a sophomore. Last year he cut that down to 17. This year we expect him to cut that number in half."
With eyes on staying vertical more often, Cutcliffe says he expects Lewis' progression to expand exponentially as he heads into his final season. Especially now that he's in a familiar system that has been constant over the last 18 months.
"I'm sure he's thrilled. He understands the practices, he understands the drills. He can watch film in the off-season and know what he's looking at and why he's watching it. He's just going to blossom this year."
High praise coming from the coach who tutored both Manning brothers as well as a stable of highly successful college signal callers. And, no doubt, Lewis would have loved to have served under Cutcliffe all four seasons. However, the two year crash course is something both quarterback and head coach are comfortable with. Cutcliffe pulled a similar assignment during his final years at Tennessee when he coached Eric Ainge for his final two seasons in Knoxville.
"It was magical to watch Eric's progression those last two years. If we would have had him for four years I can't imagine what could have happened. It's the same thing with Thad. We have a lot of good young players around him, but I'd love to have him for four years. I'd go to war with Thad Lewis."
In addition to an off-season spent in the conditioning routines and film study, Lewis had a chance to workout with Archie Manning and his two sons during the summer. The time spent with two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks proved invaluable, and also provided Lewis a chance to expand on his growth.
"Archie called me early on and said 'We love Thad'. He had all the top collegiate quarterbacks in the country around and he said that Thad threw it as well if not better than anyone there. The best thing about it was that he smiled the entire time. It was good for him because Peyton and Eli can talk the language with him. They understand our pass protection and our offense. He's able to sit with quarterbacks of that caliber and verbatim they all understand what they are talking about."
Of course the big question surrounding Lewis, and the entire program, will be how well the off-season work and year of experience in a static system will translate onto the field. As a junior Lewis completed 62 percent of his passes while tossing 15 touchdowns against just six interceptions. However, Duke will be looking to replace several players from last season's offensive unit including leading receiver Eron Riley who hauled in more than half (8) of Lewis' scoring tosses. In addition, Duke will be replacing several offensive line starters. It all means that Lewis will absolutely have to make quick decisions and cover for some pockets of inexperience on the roster.
The back-up quarterback is famously the most popular guy in the stadium as the old saying goes. In 2009 that distinction will go to heralded new-comer Sean Renfreee - a former top 10 high school recruit and the crowning jewel to Cutcliffe's initial recruiting effort in Durham. At 6-foot-3, the Arizona product has prototypical size and a great arm. The only thing lacking is experience, although he's got as much time as Lewis does in terms of off-season prepping and knowledge after spending 2008 redshirting and learning the system. Still, if Duke is to be successful in 2009, Renfree will only need to see time in situations where the outcome of the game is already decided. It will be his team in 2010, but for 2009 the best case scenario is for the talented second year player to remain on the sideline.
If the backup quarterback is inexperienced, then Duke's third string option, true freshman Sean Schroeder, could be considered a blank slate. That's certainly a benefit as the California prospect will have four seasons - maybe five so long as neither Lewis or Renfree is injured - to learn from Cutcliffe. Of course, it's also an audit on just how important it will be for Lewis to stay healthy. If he goes down early on, Duke will be relying on a pair of players with no collegiate experience to lead the team to the promised land of bowl eligibility.