A year ago at this time, the BuddyBall hype machine was in high gear - both around the Stanford area and here on TheBootleg.com in cyberspace. The poster boy for this juggernaut of an aerial assault was quarterback Chris Lewis, who had more skins on his wall than Davey Crocket. Lewis had engineered some of the most famed wins of the 2000 and '01 seasons, including the incredible comeback scoring drives to beat U$C and Texas his redshirt freshman year. And who could forget the Comeback Heard 'Round the World his redshirt sophomore year up at Oregon, which ultimately derailed the Duckies' once-in-a-lifetime national championship dreams?
Elbows swinging, we were there front and center, leading the crazed hype campaign. We slapped Lewis on the front of our inaugural issue of The Bootleg Magazine (still one of the hottest collectors items seen in recent years on EBay), and dreamt of David Klingler-esque numbers.
But that was before the suspension. Before the injury. Before the failed injury comeback. And before all the shockingly poor performances when Lewis did get on the field. His quarterback rating in 2002 was the lowest of his career, and for the first time he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in a season. The numbers below speak louder than word as to the individual disappointment that was Chris Lewis, circa 2002. The concomitant failures and disappointment of the team, with its 2-9 season, has been inexorably linked with the Lewis Letdown in many a Stanford fan's mind.
But just as things are changing for the better in nearly every dimension of Stanford Football these days, so too has the pendulum swung back in favor for Lewis. At the conclusion of the 2002 season, test results revealed that he had a partially torn rotator cuff. He soon thereafter went under the knife and now has as strong an arm as he has enjoyed in a year. A productive spring campaign with new quarterbacks coach Bill Cubit worked out some of the mechanical kinks that had crept in the previous year. But most importantly Buddy Teevens, David Kelly and Cubit hammered Lewis on his decision making in the pocket, which had led to a career high in interceptions the previous fall. The early returns in this fall camp have been positive, with Lewis (for the first time in his college career) smartly throwing the ball away when all his receivers are covered. A year ago, he was forcing those balls into double coverage and rarely coming away successful.
But beyond rotator cuffs, mechanics and quick reads, there has been a major overhaul in how Chris Lewis is carrying himself within this football team. And he's not afraid to talk about the transformation that has led to a new and improved senior member of this team.
"I used to be all about having fun now, whether I'm on or off the field," he opens. "But this year I'm serious on the field, for practices and games. I'll still be a fun guy, and I'm still everyone's friend, but now it's about being serious first, friends later. We'll have lots of time to have fun later, after wins."
For someone who has long been known on The Farm as the 'smiling mayor,' but reticent to grab the reigns as a 'tough sheriff,' this is a pretty significant change. Lewis has always been the easy-going cheery neighbor. "I wouldn't say it's really hard to do," he explains. "But I'm a natural happy guy. I'm always laid back, joking around. But that's not what we need right now. We need a tough attitude and hard work. I'll still be everyone's friend, but I'm not all smiles all the time now. If my teammates like me, then they like me. If they don't, they don't."
The first big push for the more business-like Lewis to take hold came in the summer, when he gave a stronger commitment to Stanford Football and his teammates than he had done in the past. "The last summer I missed more workouts than I should have," the admits. "I let a lot of my teammates down. But this summer I tried to be more of a leader. I stayed for every part of the summer except a brief trip to Long Beach to work the Elite 11 Camp. I just want everything to go smoothly. I just want to win on Saturdays."
His teammates have taken notice of his new demeanor, and how it can help this football team. "He's always going to be Chris," says redshirt sophomore tailback J.R. Lemon. "He's calm and doesn't get tense in big situations, and that's unique. But being more serious is good for us because we have a lot of young guys looking for him to lead the boat. They reflect what he projects."
A team-first attitude is also showing up in other parts of Lewis' outlook. When news of his one-game suspension was released during last year's preseason camp, he was sure to be quoted by the local media that the running backs had better get theirs while they could. Cuz when he came back, they weren't going to see the ball much. Lewis flashed a big smile, bragging of the pass-first, pass-second offense he was excited to lead. Today, he sings a much different tune about how the Cardinal should move the football.
"We aren't always looking for just the big play this year," he begins. "The goal now is to control the ball. The offense is going to be really balanced. We'll run the ball a lot more and use that as a tool to open up the pass. We don't have to go deep to move the football. It's becoming more of a West Coast deal - our reads are really quick and we're going to get rid of the ball in a hurry. We need that to help bring the young offensive line along. They'll be alright; they're young but talented."
Lewis is also looking forward to having a revitalized array of weapons in the passing game, including a pair of healthy NFL-bound tight ends in Brett Pierce and Alex Smith. But his classmate and longtime friend in Luke Powell is the gamebreaking difference maker that perks up the fifth-year QB. "Luke hasn't been completely healthy since his redshirt freshman year," Lewis comments. "He'll be our guy this year. Having him means that I can drop back and throw the ball as far as I can, because he'll get to it."
Another difference for the 300+ yard Stanford passer is that he has more QBs breathing down his neck than at this time a year ago. It is no secret that there is a tight three-headed battle ensuing on the practice fields this month, with Lewis fighting tooth and nail for the starting job against redshirt sophomore Kyle Matter and redshirt freshman Trent Edwards. Matter started six games a year ago and put up passing yardage and completion numbers that stack up toe-to-toe with Lewis' best season. Edwards has incredible tools that have earned him the label around campus as "the Next Elway." But Lewis isn't outwardly bothered or concerned with the competition.
"It's good," he says about the rising competition he faces in practices. "It's not just what you are taught, but also how hard you are pushed that makes you a better quarterback. Especially at Stanford, you are always going to have a lot of great quarterbacks. You have to expect that. I mean, when Randy Fasani was the guy, I was there and helped push him. My job is to bring them along and teach those guys everything I know. For me, I just go in and do the best of my abilities. If I worry about that [competition] stuff, that doesn't help our team.
"You know, we're going to be really good in the future. Kyle Matter and Trent Edwards are both great decision makers. Trent has a great arm, too. I'm looking forward to coming back and watching him at Stanford."
When asked for the overall potential and outlook for this team, Lewis declines to proclaim any bowl or W/L record as a target. But he has optimism that this team, with his renewed leadership commitment, can outstrip the pundits' expectations.
"We're just as talented or more talented than the rest of the Pac-10. If we put it all together at the right times, we could win a lot of football games this fall."
And that's the Sheriff talking. Not the smilin' Mayor.
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