DURHAM, N.C. - Leo Hart has been watching Thaddeus Lewis play quarterback at Duke since the freshman from Opa-Locka, Fla., made his first collegiate start at Wake Forest in the fall of 2006.
"It seems like just the other day, I was in Winston-Salem, meeting with Thad before his first start," Hart said. "I think he had over 300 yards that day and missed very few passes. I remember that he marched the team down for what should have been the winning field goal.
"I've been absolutely thrilled to watch him for the last four years."
Hart has a unique perspective on Blue Devil quarterbacks. Between 1968 and 1970, the tall, slender quarterback from Kinston, N.C., put up some passing stats that looked like they would never be broken. His 6,116 career passing yards almost doubled the previous Duke record. He would hold the Duke - and the ACC's - career passing mark until 1982 - when Duke junior Ben Bennett soared past him on the list.
And when Bennett added 3,086 more yards as a senior in 1983, he pushed the career record into the stratosphere. His 9,614 career yards were not only the most passing yards in Duke or ACC history - it was the highest total in NCAA history at that time.
Over the next quarter century, several Blue Devil quarterbacks would take aim at Bennett's career numbers. Steve Slayden made a run in the mid-1980s, but came up 1,600 yards short. In the early to mid-1990s, Spence Fischer made his bid and became the second Duke quarterback to top 9,000 career yards. But he still fell almost 600 yards short of Bennett.
After watching Lewis throw for 305 yards against Wake Forest in his second college game and his first career start, could anybody have guessed that he would become the quarterback to finally bump Bennett from the top of the record book?
"Coach [Ted] Roof said I had a chance to break the all-time passing record here," Lewis recalled. "To hear that as a freshman, you really don't think that much of it until the start of my senior season and I knew it was within my grasp. I knew I wasn't going to do it by myself. I needed the help of my teammates. Fortunately, I had a great offensive line and those young wide receivers making plays for me, helping me get to that goal."
Lewis passed Bennett early in the second half of his next-to-last game at Duke, throwing for 303 yards against Miami to push his career total to 9,678 yards. He'll go into this Saturday's season finale against Wake Forest already in possession of 48 school passing records - including most career yards, most career TD passes and most career completions.
"To be honest, records are made to be broken," Lewis said. "I was aware of all the records I had a chance to break, but that was just my individual goal. I put the team goals first and that was winning football games. Obviously, I'm ecstatic about breaking the records because you leave a legacy at a place - something that people can remember you by."
Lewis certainly will be remembered by Duke fans - and by the man who coached him for his final two seasons.
"He's just so tough," David Cutcliffe said. "He's really, really tough. He is a fierce competitor. He's a guy who's so willing to learn and listen and grow. He's grown his whole career. He and I sat down at the training table last night and talked about how, when he was a freshman, he was just thrown to the wolves so to speak. When he's healthy and feeling good, he knows so much more about what's going on and feels like a totally different guy. The reason he's a record setter is that he's a winner - he really is. He's had to fight and scratch for everything he's had here. He's been hit a whole bunch, but he's extremely tough."
Thrown To The Wolves
One of the reasons that Thaddeus Lewis holds so many passing records at Duke is that he has started so many games for the Blue Devils at quarterback - a school record 45 (Wake Forest will be No. 46).
That's certainly more than Hart, who played in just 31 games in his career (freshmen weren't eligible in 1967 and the switch from a 10-game to an 11-game season only occurred in his senior season). It's more than Bennett, who played in 42 games, but shared the starting job with Ron Sally early in his career.
But Cutcliffe doesn't think that Lewis' longevity should detract from his accomplishment.
"Anytime somebody points that out: 'He doesn't really deserve the home run record, he's played 25 years', I say, 'Well, wait a minute. What's a greater feat -- playing 25 years or [hitting those home runs]?" the Duke coach argued.
Lewis' early start was born out of necessity. The year before, Roof and his staff had broken in true freshman quarterback Zack Asack. They also had highly touted QB Gene Della Donne in the program when they landed Lewis from Hialeah Lakes High School in Miami.
The original plan was for Asack and Della Done to handle the position, while Lewis redshirted in 2006. Unfortunately, Della Donne - seeing Asack established as the starter - transferred out of the program. And just weeks before the start of preseason practice, Asack was suspended for the 2006 season for an academic violation.
Suddenly, Roof was scrambling - sophomore Marcus Jones, who played wide receiver in 2005, was installed as the starter and Lewis was rushed to get ready in case he was needed.
He was -- Jones struggled early in the opener against Richmond.
"I was thrown into the fire for the third series," Lewis recalled. "I went into the game, called the play ... and by the time I got to the line, I forgot it."
By all rights, Lewis shouldn't have been in the game. He was a true freshman who was only three months removed from his high school graduation. He wasn't ready to direct the offense at the college level.
"I was so nervous," Lewis said. "I thought I played well, but I didn't quite understand the offense well enough to execute in the red zone."
Indeed, Duke stalled three times in the red zone that night, losing 13-0, despite 148 passing yards from the true freshman behind center.
Two of his predecessors can sympathize with Lewis' plight.
Hart was a sophomore - the equivalent to a modern redshirt freshman - when he was thrust into the starting job for the 1968 opener at South Carolina.
"Al [Woodall] left school in spring and I got a lot of reps in spring practice," Hart remembered. "David Trice and I were going back and forth in preseason practice when David hurt his knee.
"But having the opportunity and taking advantage of the opportunity when it comes along are two different things."
Fischer was also thrown to the wolves as a freshman - although he had a redshirt year under his belt before he was forced into action in the 1992 opener.
"Steve Prince started the season at quarterback, but he got hurt in the first game and I became the starter - I probably started 7-8 games that year," Fischer said. "What Thad has done is remarkable, especially under the circumstances that he's had to deal with."
Fischer, maybe more than any of the quarterbacks who preceded Lewis, can appreciate how difficult it's been to adjust to the turnover of the coaching staff. During his tenure at Duke, Fischer had to deal with two head coaches and four different offensive coordinators.
Lewis has also had to deal with a head coaching change at the midpoint of his career. He had a different offensive coordinator in each of his first three seasons - only as a senior was he able to work with a coach and a coordinator - Kurt Roper - that he knew.
"Having the same offensive coordinator for two years in a row for the first time - I think that shows in his play," Fischer said. "It's difficult when you have different guys calling plays. What's especially impressive is his TD to interception ratio."
Indeed, Lewis has thrown 64 touchdown passes and just 39 interceptions in his career. Since the arrival of Cutcliffe and Roper to run the offense, Lewis has 32 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions.
"Sometimes, I watch film [from my freshman year] and think, 'What was I thinking?' or 'What was I doing?'" Lewis said. "I was just a young pup out there playing. To see how far I've come fundamentally and knowledge of the game and making smart decisions out there, the maturity levels and the growth from my freshman to now."
The Quarterback Guru
Leo Hart was mentored by Tom Harp, an innovative offensive mind who has seen his protégé (and son-in-law) Cam Cameron take some of his theories to the NFL. Bennett had the benefit of playing three seasons for a brilliant young offensive coordinator named Steve Spurrier.
It's not surprising that Lewis would enjoy his greatest success after the arrival of Cutcliffe. The coach Duke hired in December of 2007 was chiefly known for developing both Peyton Manning at Tennessee and his brother Eli Manning at Ole Miss. But they were just two of the many quarterbacks that Cutcliffe had polished as an offensive coordinator and head coach.
Hart was on the search committee that hired Cutcliffe. He was reportedly a strong advocate for the famed QB guru.
"If you look back at Blue Devil teams that have been successful over the years, you'll see that those were all passing teams," Hart said. "Coach Cutcliffe has trained so many successful quarterbacks. What other coach has trained two back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs at two different schools?"
But it went beyond the Manning brothers.
"When Peyton left Tennessee, he took the next quarterback and won the national championship with him," Hart said. "That's impressive to me. To train a quarterback like Peyton Manning says a lot about the ability of Coach Cutcliffe. But to train a Peyton Manning, then come back with a Tee Martin ... that aspect of his career is what impresses me."
One of the first things that Cutcliffe did after arriving at Duke was to put on some game film to check out the two-year starter that he had to work with at quarterback.
"After watching the tape of the year before, it impressed me that he was still here," Cutcliffe said recently. "Good God, he had been hit so much -- he had been sacked 40-something times and he had been hit 40 more. Brutal hits. I loved his pocket presence. He needed to learn a lot about pocket mobility, but his pocket presence -- I knew he was tough because he never took his eyes off the defense. I can tell you real quickly, watching any quarterback on TV or in practice, whether they keep their eyes downfield. That's something you can help them with and drill them, but that's an innate toughness.
"That's really hard. People talk about how hard it is to hit a major league fastball ... I've never had to do that. I'm sure it's hard. But I'm going to tell you -- do you see what some of those defensive linemen look like? And you're out there and somebody's running full speed and someone's defending them and you have all this going on around you and you're looking through 300-pounders and 6-5 and 6-6 guys ... the sound of it, you'd be shocked.
"When I saw his eyes, constantly downfield, I told Kurt, 'Boy, we've got a tough guy.'"
Lewis proved his toughness in his second career start. One week after his starting debut at Wake Forest, Duke traveled to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech. Early in the second quarter, Lewis took a vicious - and late - hit from Hokie safety Aaron Rouse and suffered a concussion.
Hart also suffered a concussion in Virginia during his career - taking a shot to the head against UVa in Charlottesville early in his junior season.
"There's one good aspect of that injury - because of the concession, I don't really remember that play," Hart said. "I remember that vicious hit that Thad took at Virginia Tech. It must have been a good two seconds after he released the ball. I felt so sorry for him."
Unlike Hart, Lewis has a vivid memory of the play that caused his head injury.
"I remember everything about it," he said. "The play was 346-squat. I completed the pass to Nick Stefanow. I remember seeing him catch it. The next thing I know, I'm on the ground."
Although the latest and most vicious blow of the game, it was actually the third late-hit penalty that the Virginia Tech defense picked up in the first 20 minutes of the game against the young quarterback.
"I know they were out for the knockout," Lewis said.
That's a strategy that many hard-hitting defenses employ.
"Defensive coordinators chart hits on a quarterback and when he starts to break down," former Duke quarterback Anthony Dilweg said.
Dilweg is remarkably well-suited to observe Lewis' performance on the field. He holds one passing record that the current Blue Devil QB has never threatened - the single-season record of 3,824 yards in 1988. In addition, he's been a sideline reporter for the Duke radio network and has had a close-up look at Lewis in action for almost his entire career.
"What resonates to me is when he is in the pocket and the blitz is coming, how he reacts knowing he's going to be hit," Dilweg said. "Sometimes you can be criticized for holding the ball too long - a quarterback is not allowed to be hurt. He's gotten to the point where he knows when to stay in the pocket and take a hit and when to throw it away. He's a remarkably tough, durable player."
That's a quality that Fischer also points out.
"He has the ability to see the entire field and to stand in the pocket and take a hit - as a former quarterback, that's something that I admire," he said. "When you take a lot of hits, a lot of the time, it's because you do not see the coverage correctly and you end up holding the ball too long. A lot of the sacks I took when I was younger were my fault. Thad does a great job of that - when the play's not there, he gets rid of the ball."
When Dilweg talks about toughness, he's not just talking about the ability to stay in the pocket and take a hit. He's talking about something else.
"He's always impressed me with his mental toughness," Dilweg said. "His ability to fight through adversity was most impressive early on. More recently, his field presence, his pocket presence, seeing him mature as far as seeing the field, his ability to vary his throws - he has [arm] speed, but he's learned the art of playing quarterback. His decision making is so improved."
One recent play illustrates both Lewis' toughness and how far he's come as a quarterback. Last week at Miami, he stood in the pocket and waited for Donovan Varner to break open across the middle. As he waited, Miami's 235-pound linebacker Darryl Sharpton was coming up the middle untouched - and at full speed. The instant he hit Lewis, the Duke quarterback released the pass to Varner for the go-ahead touchdown.
"Sometimes you have to stand in there and make that throw," Lewis said. "I knew that the middle of the field was wide open. I knew if I could hold the ball long enough, Donovan was going to be open."
He compared it to what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass at Virginia, when he hit freshman Conner Vernon on a deep post just before he was flattened by the blitzing linebacker.
"You're going to feel pressure," he said. "You have to be tough to play the quarterback position. I'm not saying I'm the toughest of the toughest, but I think I developed that with Coach Cut telling me I had to be consistent. Being consistent, that's keeping your eyes downfield. Sometimes I don't see the rush - I feel the rush, I just don't see it."
From Wake to Wake
It's a remarkable coincidence that Lewis will make his last start at Duke against the same team he made his first start against in 2006. And that's not even the end of the coincidences - the Wake Forest quarterback Saturday will be Riley Skinner, a four-year starter who made his own starting debut in the same game against Duke in '06.
Lewis and Skinner have waged a four-year statistical duel. Going into last weekend, the Deacon quarterback had a 15-yard lead over his Duke rival on the ACC career passing list - with both over 9,300 yards passing. But Lewis took a big lead with his 300-plus day at Miami.
They currently rank No. 3 (Lewis) and No. 7 (Skinner) on the ACC career passing list. They are even closer in terms of total offense - Lewis is No. 6 at 9,599 yards; Skinner No. 8 just 43 yards behind him.
"That's crazy," Lewis said. "I don't think a lot of people knew what to expect out of two young guys coming into the league. He started playing because the guy in front of him broke his arm and I started playing because of the situation that occurred with Asack. To see where we've come from there ... to look back from your first start to your last game, it's a big difference."
Skinner has one thing that Lewis envies. He's guided Wake Forest to three straight bowls and to the 2006 ACC championship. Neither team can qualify for a bowl this season, but Duke - at 5-6 on the season - has a little more to play for than 4-7 Wake Forest. The Blue Devils are trying to reach .500 on the season for the first time since 1994.
"It would be great," Lewis said. "It would be tremendous, just to get the snowball rolling into next season. Just having these young guys know that we can do it, we can win. It would great for them going into their offseason training. It would be great for recruiting. It would be great for the program overall."
Of course, Lewis' life will go on after he completes his Duke career. He's set to graduate in December - an accomplishment that's more important to his mother, he said, than any football achievement. After that, he'll make his bid to play in the NFL.
Dilweg is convinced that Lewis will find success - maybe in the NFL, maybe in another walk of life.
"I've gotten to know him through interviews," the former Blue Devil quarterback said. "I gave a talk at Duke about my career in real estate and he came over to listen and we talked. There are so many things I admire about his character. Anybody who's played football at Duke over the last 20 years has learned how to fight through adversity. They're well prepared for any adversity in life."
Going into his last game, Lewis can set the statistical bar pretty high for the next quarterback to chase. He needs 322 passing yards (a total he's already topped five times this season) to reach 10,000 yards for his career. He needs 162 passing yards to pass FSU's Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke as the No. 2 passer in ACC history.
Hart's record stood for 12 years. Bennett's career mark was the best for 26 years. How long will Lewis' final career total stand at No. 1?
But the senior quarterback is not nearly as concerned about that as he is about ending his career on a winning note.
"It means a lot because in the midst of breaking those records, we got better as a football team," Lewis said. "That's something to be remembered for - to be a guy who helped change the program around. Getting a win Saturday would be a stamp on that.
"This is our last game ... the last game lasts for a lifetime."