A football team’s true mettle is rarely as apparent as when its second-string players are thrust into the spotlight.
When an early injury Saturday night to starting linebacker Xavier Kelly put the University of Arizona linebacking corps to the test, junior college transfer Sterling Lewis stepped in and passed the exam with flying colors.
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Lewis led the Wildcats with 12 tackles in a 41-16 win over visiting Toledo. Through the team’s first two games his 15 tackles – 10 solo – is five better than anyone else on the team.
“We love Sterling,” defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said. “We knew all along he was an impact guy capable of doing a lot of good things.”
Whether it’s because of Lewis’ strong performance Saturday or the lingering effects of Kelley’s sprained ankle, when the Wildcats travel to New Mexico, the 20-year-old junior from Copperas Cove, Texas, is expected to get the starting nod.
“Sterling played an excellent football game (against Toledo),” head coach Mike Stoops said. “You really see his athleticism and speed on the field. . . Sterling will get the majority of the reps (this week in practice).”
For senior linebacker Ronnie Palmer, Lewis is more than capable of filling the void Kelley’s sprained ankle is leaving behind.
“When X went down, Sterling was right there making plays,” said Palmer, whose 10 tackles is second best on the team. “We didn’t drop a beat.”
Lewis, who enrolled at UA last January in time to participate in spring drills, isn’t a stranger to putting up big defensive numbers. His 61 tackles, including 11 for loss, at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, in 2007 earned him a spot on the First Team All-Southwest Junior College Football Conference team.
Since coming to Arizona, Lewis has been biding his time in UA practices on the team’s second team defense. Despite his role on the team becoming more prominent, he doesn’t anticipate changing his preparation in any way.
“Coach tries to get us in the rotation all the time anyway to get all of us some experience,” Lewis said. “I don’t think preparing for a start or preparing to be a backup should really be any different.
“If you prepare yourself right, you get to show what you can do when your chance comes.”
When Lewis’ chance arrived Saturday, nobody on the UA sidelines seemed too concerned.
“We felt comfortable once X went down that Sterling could go in and perform, and he did,” said Mark Stoops.
With more reps this week in practice, the hope is Lewis and Palmer will get more comfortable with what each other is doing on the field.
“Communication is a little different,” Palmer said. “Me and X have been together for over a year now and we got used to each other.
“But with Sterling, we’ll get there. You can’t question what he can do out on the field. His number got called a lot (against Toledo) and he was always in position to make the play.”
Lewis agrees the biggest challenge this week is ensuring the communication with his fellow linebackers and the rest of the defense doesn’t skip a beat when he’s in the game.
“All that starts in practice and in films when you start talking to each other, making sure you all are seeing the same things out there,” Lewis said.
It is unclear how long Kelley’s injured ankle will limit his role on the defense, but in the meantime, the Wildcats are more than comfortable relying on Lewis.
UA (2-0) at New Mexico (0-2), 5 p.m. Saturday. TV: CSTV. Radio: 1290-AM
UA LEADING TACKLERS
Player, pos. Tackles (for loss)
1. Sterling Lewis, LB 15 (2)
2. Ronnie Palmer, LB 10 (3)
3. Marquis Hundley, CB 9 (2)
4. Earl Mitchell, DT 8 (2)
5. Nate Ness, S 8 (0)