TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Ax-bearer.
That was junior wide receiver ArDarius Stewart’s primary role with the University of Alabama football team for a couple of weeks during the 2016 regular season.
Sidelined by a sprained knee late in the first quarter at Ole Miss in September, he could have gone off to the locker room or taken a seat on the bench and no one would have blamed him. Instead, Stewart stood prominently on the Crimson Tide sideline, carrying the ax that had previously spent most of its time behind closed doors.
It had been a gift from the coaches to serve as a reminder of something Stewart had said about the receiving corps late last season: “We’re assassins.”
“We’re the ones who come down when you need something clutch, we’re going down there, [getting] the ball, sacrificing our bodies, all that. I consider the receivers assassins, and I tell them that all the time.”
Consequently, they started to think that way too.
“We’re assassins,” junior Cam Sims said. “We go out there and do what we’ve got to do and win the day.”
That’s what Stewart wanted, for it to be an attitude more than a nickname, and not just with the way the wide receivers caught passes. It carried over into how they practiced, ran routes and made blocks—something this group seems to take particular pride in.
So when Stewart couldn’t suit up, out came the ax. A less dangerous substitute was tried and other alternatives considered, but he stuck with it.
What kind of assassin would have a dull weapon?
Actually, the blade is covered with a heady-duty clear plastic tape to prevent an accidental injury. But it’s pretty easy to see how Stewart became the leader of the Crimson Tide receiving corps, which is preparing to face a tough Washington secondary in the Peach Bowl as part of the College Football Playoff.
During a season in which Alabama has gotten away from some of the downfield passing attack that made Amari Cooper the program’s first Biletnikoff Award winner a couple of years ago, Stewart has been the one stressing that every play is important whether a receiver gets the ball or not.
“He’s a special player,” sophomore running back Damien Harris said. “Whether it’s down the field or a simple five-yard route, he can take it 60 or 70 yards like he did against Arkansas.”
A more recent example was the Iron Bowl, when on 4th-and-4 at the Auburn 38, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin rolled Jalen Hurts to his right and put the defensive back covering Stewart along the sideline in an awkward position trying to guess if the freshman quarterback was going to run or pass.
But following the reception, Stewart subsequently turned what should have been a first down into a back-breaking touchdown when he spun away and charged downfield. He finished with a game-high 10 receptions for 127 yards.
“He’s just a great player,” Harris said. “You can’t really talk enough about what he does for this offense, not just on the field but in the locker room. You can’t replace the motivation, the toughness and that mentality he brings to this offense.”
Ask any of the other offensive players who the best blocker among the wide receivers is and they’ll say Stewart. He’s also the one setting examples and the first to speak up when necessary, even if it’s to a lineman or one of the defensive players.
“Oh yeah, I would say he is the leader in the group,” said sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who had a 1,000-yard season in 2015. “He motivates everybody in practice. He motivates everybody in the game. He knows everything. He knows plays. He’s just one of those guys you can go to, talk to, if you don’t know what you’re doing and stuff like that. It just pumps everybody up.”
That same intensity even carries over to the way Stewart runs when he has the ball. It’s almost as if he’s mad at the opposition for trying to stop him.
The Crimson Tide call it hard running, and the 6’1″, 204-pound wideout has no qualms about dropping his shoulder and trying to run defenders over. Stewart’s physical nature even caused Ridley to say to himself last year, “Gosh, he looks like a running back,” regarding Stewart’s punishing running style. It can make him very tough to tackle.
“He’s a real physical receiver,” sophomore defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “He’s probably the most physical receiver I go up against all season. That’s why in games it’s not really a problem when I go against big, physical receivers and even tight ends because we have receivers like him that come in every play and try to head-butt you and get his hands on you.
“Going against him just gets me better.”
That fits with Stewart’s history, as he was known for doing a little bit of everything at Fultondale High School, where the in-state prospect developed into a consensus 4-star recruit. As a senior, he was credited with 1,923 rushing yards on offense to go with 55 tackles and two interceptions while playing on defense. He finished his high school career with 138 total touchdowns.
He also played quarterback. He still has a pretty good arm, as Auburn learned with a 12-yard completion to senior tight end O.J. Howard that had some zip on it.
“It’s kind of neck-and-neck,” Stewart said about which he enjoyed more, his touchdown or his first career pass completion, an offensive tweak the Crimson Tide had been working on all season. “I’m just glad we got the win.”
Stewart redshirted his first year at Alabama in 2013, but things started clicking for him the following season, resulting in his first two career starts. Unafraid to deliver some punishing blocks, like the crack block on Arkansas linebacker Brooks Ellis last season, he became a valuable asset on screen passes in addition to being a receiving target.
Last season, he finished second on the Crimson Tide with 63 receptions, 31 of which went for a touchdown or first down, and 700 yards.
Even though he missed two games this year, along with most of the Ole Miss game in which he got hurt, Stewart has been Alabama’s leading receiver in yards with 852 on 52 catches, eight for touchdowns.
With Alabama running more horizontal plays, with jet sweeps and shovel passes that look like end-around runs, he’s getting plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his versatility.
It also makes him someone that Washington’s defense has to always account for during the upcoming national semifinal. While the Huskies have big starting cornerbacks with Kevin King (6’3″) and Sidney Jones (6’0″), prominent safety Budda Baker leads the unit that also features Jojo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp, the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
They’ll be Stewart’s primary marks, run or pass. He’s the guy who, excuse the pun, plays with an edge and can turn the momentum of a game in numerous ways.
“I think what make ArDarius so good is that he not only catches the ball—he has to catch it and make great plays—but he blocks every down,” Howard said. “He plays hard every play. He’s one of the best blocking receivers you can see in the nation. Every time the ball is in somebody else’s hands, he wants to see them score just as bad as he wants to score.”
That makes him a coach’s dream, even when he’s carrying around the ax, which to Stewart is much more than a prop.
“We gotta be the slashers, man,” he said. “We gotta come in when we need a big play. Sacrifice our bodies, make something happen and make something come through. When we’re down and we’re struggling, we gotta swing the momentum in our hands.”
Just don’t get in his way when he does.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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