NORMAN — The Air Force Academy will enter Saturday's game at Oklahoma leading the nation in rushing.
But that doesn't mean Ronnell Lewis will return to strongside linebacker this week.
Instead, it appears "The Hammer" will remain a defensive end for this game, this season and probably the rest of his Sooner career.
Thanks to the influx of pass-first offenses on OU's schedule, the Sooners' base defense essentially has gone from the 4-3 to the nickel. In other words, the strongside linebacker (Lewis) has been replaced with a third safety, in OU's case, true freshman Tony Jefferson.
OU figures to remain in the nickel the majority of the time this season, including against a run-first offense like Air Force, which operates its triple-option attack out of spread formations.
Lewis is still making an impact, despite being relegated to kick coverage guru and spot defensive end.
Against Florida State, he had five tackles, including one for loss. On one kick return, The Hammer leveled Lamarcus Joyner from the right side, a hit that took Joyner several seconds to get up from.
The week before against Utah State, Lewis had three tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery.
But because the Sooners have been almost exclusively in the nickel, Lewis has had to make those plays on special teams and at defensive end, not linebacker.
Don't count on that changing.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables indicated over the weekend that against offensive sets with three or more wide receivers, Jefferson would continue to be on the field. And against formations with only two receivers, backup nickelback Joe Ibiloye would continue to come in for Jefferson.
Meaning, the only time OU won't be in the nickel this season will be against teams that use multiple tight ends and run the ball between the tackles.
Stanford did that in the Sun Bowl, and Lewis played a prominent role at outside linebacker to help stuff the run.
But no one left on OU's schedule fits the Stanford profile.
And because the forte of the 250-pound Hammer isn't dropping back in pass coverage, Lewis figures to continue seeing the majority of his snaps at defensive end.
The unfortunate news for Lewis is that end is currently a crowded position, featuring blue-chip starters Jeremy Beal and Frank Alexander, and a host of capable reserves in David King, Pryce Macon and R.J. Washington.
But the good news is that the coaching staff had the foresight to realize Lewis wasn't going to be on the field very often manning strongside linebacker, a position the Sooners weren't going to use regularly. And that by moving him to end, Lewis would get to play in spots this year, and eventually have the chance to earn a starting role there next season.
"He's still learning," OU coach Bob Stoops said last week. "But he's getting it more and more. We feel the more he plays, the more comfortable he's going to be there."
So for now, Lewis will continue to learn defensive end, a position he's never played before this season, but one suited to his tremendous skill set.
He'll continue to go after the quarterback from end on third-down passing situations, and be available to man strongside linebacker when the Sooners do go to the 4-3. He won't be on the field for every defensive play this season. Probably most defensive plays.
But be patient. Soon, perhaps by next season, Lewis will be laying the hammer from his new position full-time.
Breaking down Air Force
Campus location: Air Force Academy, Colo.
Conference: Mountain West
Last game: Mikel Hunter scored twice and the Falcons' defense forced three turnovers, helping Air Force snap a six-game slide against BYU with a 35-14 win.
Last meeting with OU: On Sept. 1, 2001, the Falcon offense fooled no one, as OU romped to a 44-3 win at Air Force.
Best player: Cornerback Anthony Wright leads a stingy Falcon defense that shut down BYU's pass offense.
Why they could win: The Falcons have the No. 1 ground game in college football averaging 423 yards through two games. If Air Force can sustain that kind of production on the ground in Norman, the Falcons could hang around.
Why they could lose: One thing the Sooners have always done in the Bob Stoops era is shut down the run. The Falcons could find it hard to find running lanes against a Sooner front that was impressive in OU's win over Florida State.