railing by two scores in the first half of the 2017 regular season finale, Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper snapped the ball out of the shotgun, a few yards past midfield. The freshman gunslinger looked right, then snapped his head back to the left as he took a three-step drop, ultimately lofting a deep ball to wide receiver Ervin Phillips. Boston College safety Lukas Denis wasn’t taking the bait.
In fact, the junior read the play the whole way, sprinting in the direction of Phillips before Culpepper even cocked his arm back to deliver the pass. What looked like a simple interception was really the byproduct of Denis’s strategic decision-making and flawless execution: tracking the ball’s flight path with ease, the Everett, Mass. native reached the 15-yard line with a second to spare. While his teammate Hamp Cheevers was glued to the back of Phillips’s jersey, perhaps unaware that he had backup within sight, Denis hopped in the air, highpointed the pass, and came down with the interception.
At that point, he was no longer a safety—he was the fearless player who suited up at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver as a kid. He might have been 85-some yards away from the end zone, but he had his eyes set on six.
“Once I catch the ball, I turn into the offensive player,” Denis said. “From there on, it’s my chance to finally score.”
He didn’t take the interception to the house, but he came quite close. Using his 4.5 speed, Denis galloped downfield, sifting through blockers and a sea of turf. Following linebacker Ty Schwab and fellow safety Will Harris, the 5-foot-11 defensive back veered toward the sideline. He wasn’t running out of bounds, though. Denis cut back inside, infiltrating Orange territory, and nearly hurdled another defender before being brought down inside the Syracuse 40-yard line.
Commentators and analysts marveled at the fact that Denis had not only flipped the field, but that he’d also recorded his nation-leading seventh interception in the process. What was overlooked, however, was just how much damage the Walter Camp All-American was actually doing with the ball in his hands. That momentum-shifting play in the Carrier Dome marked the third time that season that the safety had picked off a pass and turned it upfield for 45 or more yards. Altogether, he was averaging 25.6 yards per interception return.
Denis wasn’t just in the right place at the right time—his instincts and speed were making him one of the hottest names in the ACC, let alone the entire country. His own mother was shocked at just how far he’d come in a matter of months.
After all, he wasn’t always that big.
y the age of five, Denis was already running suicide sprints alongside his teammates—well, his brother’s teammates.
Whenever his mother, Ketlie, drove Denis’s older brother Dimitris—four years Denis’s elder—to Pop Warner practice, she brought Denis along for the ride. Often times, they’d arrive early, meaning that they’d have to wait for the session to wrap up. Out of impatience, Denis began to cry—not because he wanted to go home, but because he wanted to play.
As soon as the final whistle blew, the entire team ran up and down the field. Denis joined in, sometimes outpacing Dimitris’ teammates. In his mother’s words, Denis was the smallest one in the crowd, but he also might have been the happiest.
When second grade rolled around, Denis was still showing up to Dimitris’ Pop Warner practices, and then-Everett High School football head coach John DiBiaso took note. DiBiaso—who now has 12 MIAA State Championships to his name and is regarded as one of the best high school football coaches in Massachusetts history—was at the field hosting a Pop Warner workout and caught a glimpse of Denis training by himself.
“I watched him jump rope like a professional boxer,” he said. “It was amazing how light he was on his feet and how he could do it naturally, never having done it before. … You don’t see a second grader jumping rope like Muhammed Ali.”
Having already met Ketlie and Dimitris—who was close in age to his son Jonathan—DiBiaso introduced himself to Denis right then and there, knowing quite well that he was going to be something special one day. Ketlie still doesn’t quite understand how DiBiaso could have had that kind of foresight. To her, as athletic as Denis was, he was still just a tiny kid.
What he lacked in size, he made up for in toughness. Week after week, Denis would tag along with Dimitris and his older cousin Michael to play street football in Glendale Park and the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Mass. Similar to Dimitris’ Pop Warner practices, Denis was the smallest of the pack, especially considering that the games typically included a handful of teenagers. But his height and weight didn’t matter if no one could catch him.
Taking after one of his favorite players, Brian Westbrook—a 5-foot-8, 200-pound Philadelphia Eagles scat back that Denis frequently used when playing Dimitris in Madden—Denis juked and spun past the opposition, scoring at least one touchdown per game.
To top it all off, he’d come home with a huge smile on his face, covering up the dirt on the rest of his body. Ketlie was confused: One, why was he gleaming after having just played street football with a bunch of teenagers? Two, how in the world did he find the end zone? Dimitris swore they didn’t let his brother score. Denis was just that elusive, plain and simple.
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ittingly, Denis played running back during his Pop Warner days. With his frame, he was even more lethal than he might have been if he was three or four inches taller. It also helped that he had the endurance to carry the ball at will. He ran everywhere—to the school, the park, you name it.
According to Ketlie, though, Denis spent time at practically every position on the field.
He did everything he possibly could to help his team win, on one occasion literally running out of his cleats and socks. It wasn’t just any day either—it might have been the biggest game of Denis’ young life: a matchup against King Philip’s Pop Warner A Team that served as the entryway to Nationals in Orlando.
Despite putting up a fight, Denis’s team lost. His teammates, and many of the surrounding parents, his mother included, were sobbing. To say that Ketlie was dumbfounded would be an understatement.
“I said, ‘Lukas, why are you not crying,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘I’m a football player—I cannot cry because I’m not playing at Disney. I should be playing at Foxborough, not Disney.”
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hat’s exactly how DiBiaso defines Denis: “a football player”. And years later, Denis ended up playing out his dream in Gillette Stadium under the leadership of DiBiaso himself.
Denis kicked off his high school career the only way he knew how—playing with older kids. Right from the get-go, the still-small positionless player was listed on the Everett High School varsity football roster. And he wasn’t pictured as a running back. Denis was penned as the backup quarterback to none other than DiBiaso’s son, Jonathan.
While he had taken snaps behind center here and there, the change was rather surprising. Maybe not for Denis, who DiBiaso said had a great arm, but it certainly was for Ketlie. She had her reasons too. There was no telling if her son was going to grow any taller, although there were definitely signs pointing in the right direction. Back when he was in middle school, his arms were longer than the rest of his body. Even just fitting a suit was nearly impossible. Not to mention that his hands were rather large for his size.
Vertically inclined or not, Denis was a dual threat signal caller with running back tendencies. But, after sitting behind Jonathan during the Crimson Tide’s MIAA Division One Super Bowl run in 2011, he went down with an elbow injury amid his sophomore season, one that kept him out most of the year. His arm wasn’t quite the same upon return, so DiBiaso moved him over to the wide receiver position. It was then that Denis really started to play two ways, also serving as a defensive back. More importantly, that summer marked the start of his five-inch growth spurt.
“The way Lukas turned out to be, it’s just—it’s God,” Ketlie said. “God knows what he wants to do with Lukas.”
As a junior, Denis broke out onto the scene, establishing himself as a weapon one side of the perimeter and a shutdown defender on the other. The campaign set the stage for his senior season, a stretch of 12 games that had him in the discussion for ESPNBoston.com’s “Mr. Football” award, which is presented annually to the best high school football player in the state of Massachusetts.
Denis logged 52 tackles, two forced fumbles, eight interceptions—the most in the state and three of which he took back for six—and 13 pass breakups. That was just on defense. On the outside, Denis scored 17 touchdowns, frequently beating opposing corners on go routes, comebackers, and crossing patterns. Denis had all the numbers in the world and an offer to play at BC, but he didn’t leave Everett High School on top.
Even though he found the end zone twice, Denis watched as the Crimson Tide fell to Xaverian, 38-29, in the state title game. Denis knew he did his part—he didn’t feel bad for himself, he felt bad for his teammates.
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n many ways, Denis is an old soul living in a college athlete’s body.
“Lukas does a lot of things that he’s not going to come to [me] for,” Ketlie said. “Lukas likes to be treated like he’s—I don’t even know, sometimes I say 50 years old.”
Ever since a young age, he’s been serious about his football dreams. So serious that when he was 6 one of his teachers called him asking Ketlie if her son ever smiled. The teacher said that she was telling jokes in class, and Denis wasn’t laughing. Ketlie responded by reassuring the teacher that that’s just how her son functions. He’s calculated and focused.
Denis does everything for a reason. Whether that’s running track in high school—and clocking in at 15th in Everett’s all-time 200 meter record book—or playing both sides of the ball to better understand route progressions, he sets his own agenda.
Whereas most players are keen on seeing the field as an underclassmen, Denis understood that taking a backseat for his first two years on the Heights was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. He spent every summer at BC, rooming with teammate and friend Will Harris and studying an exorbitant amount of film. It was also during those years that Denis learned from future NFLers Justin Simmons and John Johnson III.
After Johnson III left for the 2017 NFL Draft, Denis—originally recruited as a cornerback—was moved to safety position to make up for the lack of depth in the back end. He, and really everything else, just fell into place.
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fter tallying just seven total tackles as an underclassmen, Denis matched that number in 2017—with interceptions. Like clockwork, the defensive back nabbed five picks in the first five games of the season. It was almost as if he was playing Madden with Dimitris again.
“I’m like ‘come on Lukas, take it to the house—you have like five [interceptions] already, can I have one touchdown please?,’” Dimitris said.
Then there’s Ketlie, who still has troubling wrapping her head around the fact that her son is on the field. Denis playing as a starter is still new to her. Him coming up with interceptions? That makes her sick.
Last year, BC traveled to Death Valley to play then-No. 2 Clemson. Ketlie watched intently as the Eagles held the reigning national champions to just seven points through the first three quarters of regulation. With a bit more than 11 minutes to go in the third frame, Kelly Bryant dropped back and hurled a pass for Hunter Renfrow. The ball ricocheted off the outstretched hand of the slot receiver and into the arms of Denis.
Highlight-reel plays like that almost make Ketlie pass out. She actually ended up in a Clemson clinic with an ice pack on her head. As much of a surprise as Denis’s breakthrough was for his mother, DiBiaso knew that it was just a matter of time before the defensive back made his mark.
“He might not have the greatest 40 time in the United States, but he breaks on the ball, he’s instinctive, he knows where the quarterback’s going to throw it,” the longtime high school coach remarked. “When he jumps routes, he picks it. He doesn’t just knock it down, he makes a big play out of it.”
In just one season, Denis has gone from being a no-name special teamer to being listed as the second-best senior safety in all of college football by NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. Staying healthy would all but guarantee the ballhawk a spot on an NFL team this coming April. And once he gets there, he could very well be a locker room favorite.
“He’s never going to be an issue,” DiBiaso said. “I’ve coached other guys that are actually in pro football in personnel—there’s actually three of them that I’ve coached that work in front offices. They look for guys that aren’t headaches, and Lukas is never going to be a headache.”
For most his life, Denis was small and playing football with guys beyond his years. Heading into the 2018 campaign, he’s the oldest in the crowd, and the expectations surrounding his senior season are larger than life.
Photos by Julia Hopkins / Heights Senior Staff
Featured Image by Tiger Tao / Heights Staff