Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Perhaps no one was more heartbroken over Georgia Tech's cancelled game against UCF than linebacker Terrell Lewis.
The matchup in Orlando was supposed to be a homecoming for the senior, a native of nearby Ocoee, Fla. Lewis estimated he had 40 friends and family who planned on attending. Brokering with teammates for their complimentary tickets had become a second job inside the Yellow Jackets' locker room.
"I was crushed, man," said Lewis, a business administration major.
"We've never played in Orlando. It was like [it was] meant to be. I knew a whole lot of guys on that UCF football team. I was talking trash back and forth, just playing around. I was excited."
Lewis' family may not have gotten to see him play in person but they've still witnessed plenty of highlights from him this season. The 6-2, 227-pounder has emerged as a quiet standout of the first month, ranking second on the team in tackles (14). He led Tech with five stops in its 35-17 win over Pittsburgh, a convincing effort that head coach Paul Johnson said "might be the best game we've tackled since I've been here." Despite Georgia Tech's four lost fumbles, Pitt didn't score a single point on its ensuing drives.
"We were just zoned in. We were locked in," Lewis said, explaining the defense's mentality Saturday: "We've got another chance to make a play. Who's going to make a play next?"
Patience can be a virtue, but it can also feel like a fleeting commodity in the current culture of college athletics. Lewis described his playing time as "spotty" his first three seasons, used mainly as a backup.
As a junior, he started Tech's season opener against Boston College and made two other starts (Mercer and Duke), but saw his linebacker snaps diminish as Tech played more nickel defense.
Lewis took the news in stride, realizing it reflected a different strategy, not a demotion. He instead threw himself into his other role, as a member of the Yellow Jackets' special teams. In addition to his three special teams tackles in 2016, Lewis blocked a punt in Georgia Tech's TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Kentucky.
His patience has now turned into production in his senior season. It's a message he'd share with any young player who feels antsy about his perceived lack of playing time.
"You have to understand that it's a team. Once you understand that, it's more than just about you and your playing time, it's about the team and what your team needs. You kind of understand your role on the team. `If I'm punt [defense], well guess what? I'm the best punt right tackle in the country this week, I promise you," he said.
That attitude has long earned Lewis the respect of his teammates, who are thrilled at his recent run of production.
"Through my years I've been here, Terrell, he's been working really hard. He's gotten better since the day I've been here. He's come a long way," said junior safety A.J. Gray.
That resolve should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him. Whether discussing football, fishing or Game of Thrones -- he's the ringleader of the team's Sunday night viewing parties and he recently switched his Instagram name to "terrelltargaryen" -- Lewis radiates sunshine on almost any subject.
"He's got a really upbeat personality and a good attitude about things. He's really fun to be around," Johnson noted.
(For further proof, Lewis' Instagram profile reads: "Do everything with a chip on my shoulder and a smile on my face.")
With his 14 tackles, Lewis is already halfway to his career total entering the season. Even with his increased reps on defense, though, he has no plans of abandoning his role on special teams. Lewis earned the Jackets' Special Teams Player of the Game award for his efforts against Pittsburgh.
He and his teammates will try to follow up on their virtuoso performance against North Carolina on Saturday (Noon ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network). Last November in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels rolled up 636 yards of offense - the second-most ever allowed by the Yellow Jackets - in Tech's 48-20 defeat.
"Personally, I've never beaten North Carolina since I've been here. I've had that one circled," Lewis said. Georgia Tech has been waiting for its redemption. Terrell Lewis had been waiting for his playing time. Those motivations will merge again on Saturday -- and Lewis hopes to deliver another strong performance in what is fast becoming a memorable final season.