STILLWATER — Back in early January, Oklahoma State figured to enter the 2014 football season with a deep and experienced collection of centers. The position group should have been a strength among so many other concerns on the roster coming into a new year.
But jump forward to fall camp and that’s all changed — dramatically.
Less than two weeks after the Cowboys fell in the Cotton Bowl, offensive line coach Joe Wickline accepted the same position at Texas. Soon after, OSU’s former starting center, Jake Jenkins, and his backup, Travis Cross, each left the program to pursue other career paths, despite remaining eligibility.
So who fills the void at center? And how much experience does he have?
Sophomore Paul Lewis. He’s recorded just one career start for the Cowboys. But don’t think that hurts his confidence.
“I know this offense like the back of my hand,” he said.
That frame of mind is good news for OSU, especially considering Lewis’ new-found responsibilities with the first team. As new offensive line coach Bob Connelly puts it, when Lewis is on the field, he must be “a direct reflection of me.”
It’s the center's job to understand the exact mechanics of each set in the Cowboys’ playbook. When Lewis approaches the line, he’ll have to identify the opposing defensive scheme, blitz packages, coverage drops, lineman shifts and everything in between. Lewis will then bark orders to his four teammates on the offensive line: who slides, who pulls and who stands pat.
And in OSU’s high-tempo offense, it all happens in mere seconds before it’s on to the next play.
“The tempo gets a little out of control,” Lewis said. “J.W. (Walsh) is back there going, ‘Now! Now! Now!’ And slapping his hand … It gets kind of hectic sometimes, but you’ve got to just keep going with it.”
Lewis admits it’s been quite the learning curve from day one of spring ball to now, especially when you factor in adjusting to a new coach with different methods of training and motivation.
“I didn’t expect them to respect me day one,” Connelly said.
That process took time. The first step was simply identifying who would play what role. Then it was personal talks in office settings, many times unrelated to anything found in a playbook.
“(Connelly) wants to get to know each and every one of us as a man first before a football player,” Lewis said. “Me and him have had a lot on one-on-one talks about schemes and life. I’ll go in sometimes just to talk to him.”
Once the relationship was built, the coach and player could move on to football specifics. Connelly’s been impressed with his sophomore center’s grasp of the Cowboy offense, and said he’s focused on learning more about how to respond to different defensive sets.
As far as leadership in the huddle is concerned, offensive line teammate Zac Veatch suggested Lewis has everyone’s attention at each snap.
“He doesn’t have a problem at all with command in the huddle,” Veatch said. “If he’s on the ball and says the huddle is right there, then the huddle is right there.”
Veatch said he and Lewis are great friends, as they both were part of the same recruiting class. Outside football, Veatch called Lewis “happy-go-lucky” and “always smiling.” But come Aug. 30, when the Cowboys line up against Florida State, that’s not likely to be his attitude.
Lewis has something to prove.
“I’m ready to go out there and show what we really can do as an offensive line,” he said.