Go watch the Duke soccer team play, and likely the first player you'll notice is the tall, lanky, rawboned kid, with the headband holding back his long hair, who patrols the middle of the field for the Blue Devils.
At 6-5, 185 pounds, Chris Loftus looks more like a goalkeeper or a target forward in the mold of Liverpool's Peter Crouch than a defensive center midfielder.
Yet Duke's veteran coach John Rennie, who decided to move the converted forward to midfield midway through last season, has been repaid handsomely for playing his hunch that Loftus would thrive in a central role.
Not only did Duke's run to the College Cup semifinals last season coincide with Loftus becoming comfortable in that position, but this year, Loftus has proven to be the Blue Devil's top threat as a goal scorer. He leads the team with eight goals and 18 points, matching his season totals of 2004 and 2003 (five goals each) in just six games.
Not surprisingly, No. 4 Duke (7-2-1) has won six of the seven games in which Loftus has scored this season, and the junior's goal with 1:31 left in regulation against Virginia Tech earned his team a creditable draw on the road.
It's an unexpected benefit for Rennie, who said he did not predict such a prolific scoring record when he decided to move Loftus to midfield. "We tried him there last season for defense actually," Rennie said. "He's very good with his feet; he sees the game well, and of course, as a defensive header, he's one of the best in the country. He was kind of the missing piece."
Loftus' emergence as a midfielder, Rennie said, had a lot to do with Duke's run in the NCAA tournament last year and probably contributed to the big junior being named a team captain this season, something Loftus called "a very big honor" because his teammates elected him.
From his position deep in midfield, Loftus' primary responsibilities include providing cover for a young back four, winning balls and distributing to Duke's primary creative talents, Blake Camp and Michael Videira. Scoring is a bonus.
"In his role, he does not go forward a lot," Rennie said. "He seems to have a knack for finding the scoring spots." Perhaps the least surprised person through all this has been Loftus himself. He humbly credits his teammates with creating chances for him, but he said he always had confidence that he could put those chances away.
"I definitely think that I can score some goals, but I've found myself in the right position a lot this year," he said. "I don't think it has surprised me that much. I've worked real hard all summer and came in fit."
One might think that, with his height, Loftus would get most of his goals through the air. In fact, he has found the net in a variety of ways this year, including several headers. But he's also scored on a volley, a 25-yard drive against Longwood and a 30-yard screamer against the College of Charleston, a game Duke won 3-2 in overtime.
He also seems to choose important moments to score, as evidenced by his goal against Wake Forest in another overtime Duke win. "We were down 2-0 against Wake Forest, and he scored the first goal that really picked us up. We needed that badly," Rennie said.
For Loftus, the biggest highlight so far came at then-No. 25 St. Louis, where he scored 58 seconds into the match and added an assist in front of a large collection of friends, family and several of his former youth coaches who had traveled from his hometown of Springfield, Ill., to watch him play. Duke cruised to a 3-1 win, and Loftus made College Soccer News' National Team of the Week.
The scary thing for Atlantic Coast Conference opponents is that Loftus seems to be improving as the season progresses. "The thing about Chris is he's still growing into himself. He's 6-5 and lanky," Rennie said. "He's going to get better. He's going to get quicker and stronger."
Loftus is only now beginning to earn respect as one of the key players on a top-ten college team. Although he was recruited partly by playing at the prestigious Adidas ESP camp, Loftus never played with a youth national team or even a regional team, having foregone the ODP experience to play basketball. Unlike many players of his ability, he has never even left the country. As a result, he could not be more firmly grounded, hopes of Major League Soccer or U.S. youth team participation taking a back seat to what he wants to accomplish this year with Duke.
"That's so new to me," he said about the prospect of playing professionally or internationally. "Right now, I'm focusing on this year, [and] I'll definitely be back next year."
For Rennie, whose team features only two seniors, that is good news. Loftus is the kind of player who earns his teammates' respect through his actions on and off the field, Rennie said. He leads by example, and he can be vocal when the situation calls for it. "He's a guy that I think the players respect as a player, and he has credibility with them," Rennie said.
A premed student, Loftus has excelled academically, as well. Rennie said he never has to worry about Loftus' preparedness, whether in practice, working on an offseason conditioning program or before a game. "Chris is one of those super-conscientious student-athlete role models that you cringe about," Rennie said. "But he really is."
Mike Hanzel covers men's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org