Lewis surprised by Oklahoma's scholarship offer
Like many high school football players in small towns across Oklahoma, Ronnell Lewis has often dreamed about playing for the Oklahoma Sooners.
The odds would seem to be stacked against him, considering his hometown of Dewar is barely a speck on the map. Not much is there other than about 900 hearty souls who live surrounding a central business district that consists of a convenience store and a Mexican restaurant.
But the area along Interstate 40 about 50 miles south of Tulsa has long been known as a mecca for football players. Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman was reared and played at nearby Henryetta, only about 3 miles from Lewis' hometown. And the 6-foot-3, 220-pound OU commit could be poised to be the next big splash, though he has played eight-man football throughout his high school career.
His college-ready frame and athleticism have prompted the Sooners to deviate from a long-standing hesitancy of most Big 12 teams to ignore recruits who don't play on 11-man high school teams. Lewis received the first scholarship offer of the Sooners' 2009 recruiting class."I was surprised when they offered it [the scholarship] to me," Lewis said. "I just do my work out on the field, and I guess whether I went to a small school or not doesn't matter to them. They thought I could help them out."
Lewis grabbed the attention of college coaches and recruiting analysts and has emerged as one of only a few eight-man players ever to sniff the national Top 100 lists.
"Typically we get a bunch of guys who are 5-foot-9 and can run really fast, and then some 6-foot-3 guys who are pretty slow," Dewar coach Josh Been said. "But we got the whole deal with Ronnell. He's got the makings of a great player. I think the Sooners' coaches see that in him."
Lewis rushed for more than 2,300 yards and scored a state-best 40 touchdowns last season, but he was even more impressive on defense. Playing strong safety, he produced more than 100 tackles and notched 11 interceptions as he led his team to the Class B state championship game.
His athletic abilities have been showcased in a variety of sports throughout his high school career. He averaged about 25 points per game for Dewar's basketball team and was a key participant as a sprinter on the track team. Lewis said he can bench-press 335 pounds and can run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds.
After considering Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, Lewis decided on the Sooners' scholarship offer. It was an easy choice for him, considering that former Sooners standout Adrian Peterson has been Lewis' favorite player since he was in grade school.
Sooners coaches project him as a middle linebacker who appears to be ideal for OU's aggressive defense, much like predecessors Rufus Alexander and Curtis Lofton.
When Lewis visited the Sooners' spring game earlier this season, Been was impressed by the reaction his player received from Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
"He made some real positive comments about him to the team," Been said. "Even though he's played only eight-man football, Coach Stoops told his guys that he immediately could tell Ronnell was a football player. And that's what he's after for his program."
The scholarship offer to Lewis is extremely rare, as only a handful of players who didn't play 11-man football are currently on Division I-A rosters.
Oklahoma State tackle Brady Bond has emerged as a starter for the Cowboys the past two seasons. He has gradually become accustomed to the flow of 11-man football after playing eight-man football in high school.
Many recruiters were hesitant to consider Bond because of the lack of talent he played against in high school.
"He's about 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. And you can imagine how dominant he looked like when he was facing some of those 135-pound defensive ends in some of his games in high school," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "It's really hard to evaluate those players, unless they come to your camp. You're rolling the dice until you see them matched up against better talent."
Six-man football was constructed in 1934 by Stephen Epler, a Nebraska high school coach who conceived a version of the game for schools that didn't have the enrollment to muster 11-man teams. Its popularity peaked shortly after World War II, when hundreds of small communities fielded teams.
Remnants and derivations of the game remain today, including the eight-man team on which Lewis played -- and others in Nebraska and New Mexico. Many six-man football teams exist across Texas.
The principles of the six- and eight-man games are the same as those played with more players. But the fewer players on the field, the more speed matters. More passes are thrown and more points are scored, but tackling is still tackling. And that's what makes Lewis such an attractive product.
"Ronnell is an extremely physical player," Been said. "He hits people and when he hits them, they've felt it. The OU coaches talk about how he can run to the football and run through people when he gets there."
Among the more notable former six- and eight-man players include former Houston Oilers coach Jack Pardee, the only six-man alumnus to make the College Football Hall of Fame. Other standouts include former NFL players Randy Rasmussen and Les Josephson, 1994 Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam and Dean Steinkuhler, who won the Outland Trophy as the best collegiate lineman in 1983.
Despite the complexity of learning the Sooners' defensive philosophy, Lewis can't wait for the challenge. He plans to enroll in early January, hoping to contend for immediate playing time as a freshman.
"I don't think I'll get lost in the terminology or anything like that," Lewis said. "I'm just going to go up there and work my tail off so I can get ready to play. I'm excited about my opportunity."
Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.