TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Ray Stewart Sr. and Ray Stewart Jr. had a plan for young ArDarius Stewart.
ArDarius was an extremely hyper kid in kindergarten. Many who surrounded him believed he should take medication to settle down. His grandfather and uncle knew better.
“My brother and my dad were like ‘let’s get him in football versus everybody recommending things for him to take to calm down,'” Stewart’s mother, Lashona Smith, told SEC Country. “He got involved in football around six years old, and never let the ball go after that.”
The late Stewart Jr. was “one of the most important people in Darius’ life,” according to his mom. Smith had Stewart when she was 15 years old. Smith’s mother, Sandra Stewart, raised Ray Stewart Jr., Smith and ArDarius Stewart as brothers and sisters, even though ArDarius Stewart was her grandson.
Stewart Jr. pushed his nephew Stewart every day. The two would run up hills in order to keep the younger Stewart in shape for sports. Stewart credits his uncle for instilling toughness and a level of physicality in him at an early age.
“Yeah, I had that since little league. I probably get it from my Uncle Ray, man. Rest in peace,” Stewart said. “But yeah, he kept me going, kept me motivated and he always told me to bring him back an arm and a leg. So I just keep that mentality, and as I play, I hear him in my head like, ‘OK, now it’s time to get it. Let’s get it, let’s get it. Get me an arm or a leg. So I go out there and I play like that.”
Ever get an arm or a leg?
“Every time, every game. I try to,” Stewart said. “If I don’t, I’m disappointed.”
Stewart Jr. died in his sleep in 2013. Smith said Stewart went through a time when he was “down and depressed.” But the family leaned on church members and sports to help him through the tough time.
Stewart uses the memory of his uncle as motivation. He writes “Ray” on his wrist bands for every game. Stewart also talks to Uncle Ray before every game.
“My uncle, he was my hype man. He kept me going,” Stewart told SEC Country. “When I pray before every game, I tell him to keep me hype and stay with me. No one could get me going like he could. I just kept that with me.”
The early lessons from his uncle have helped Stewart develop into one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the country. Last season, Stewart finished second on the team with 63 receptions for 700 yards and 4 touchdowns. He made his mark with key third-down catches including one in Alabama’s win over Tennessee and in the national championship game against Clemson.
Two games into his junior season, Stewart leads the SEC in receiving yards (203), receiving touchdowns (3) and yards per game (101.5). He’s one of the go-to targets for Alabama’s freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Stewart and Hurts will lead Alabama’s offense into their SEC opener at Ole Miss on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
“ArDarius is a really good competitor, plays hard, plays with a lot of toughness,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He’s very explosive as a player. He’s had some opportunities and made some big plays for us.”
It’s evident when watching Stewart run after the catch that he’s maintained his level of speed while adding muscle and size. He arrived on campus at 185, but has bulked up to 205 and feels “way more comfortable.”
Stewart has the ability to run around and through defenders which is rare for a wide receiver.
“I call Stew a running back. He’s very physical,” said Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley. “He’s a guy who really gets after anybody — linebacker, d-lineman. He’s got great hands, vision. he’s fast. He’s got great ball skills. He really gets after it.”
Smith believes her son has always had this type of big-play ability. She’s happy everyone else is starting to realize it.
Back in his Fultondale (Ala.) High School days, Stewart played nearly every position on the field. Rivals.com ranked Stewart as the No. 3 athlete nationally in the 2013 recruiting cycle.
Stewart put up video-game numbers throughout his time in high school. As a junior in 2011, Stewart rushed for 2,188 yards, threw for 1,419 yards and had 50 total rushing and passing touchdowns. He also made 48 tackles and intercepted three passes as a defensive back while scoring twice on returns .
Stewart added 1,923 rushing yards, 55 tackles and two interceptions as a senior in 2012. He finished his career with 138 total touchdowns at Fultondale.
Stewart had the option of playing defensive back at Alabama. He was moved there for a brief period in the spring of 2014. But receiver was a more natural fit at the college level.
“I love the feel of getting the ball and getting in that end zone,” Stewart said.
This season, Stewart has expanded his role on and off the field. The vocal leadership didn’t come naturally for Stewart. He’s a “lead by example” type of guy, but Alabama’s coaching staff implored him to speak up more and help the younger guys.
Stewart nicknamed the group the “assassins” because they have to be “slashers” who put their bodies on the line for the team. Now he’s the top “assassin” in the receiver room.
“Oh yeah, I would say he is the leader in the group,” Ridley said. “He motivates everybody in practice. He motivates everybody in the game. He knows everything. He knows the 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.”
For as many explosive plays he makes, Stewart’s signature is his physicality. He is Alabama’s best blocking wide receiver. Alabama’s defensive backs notice it practice. Alabama safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick both called Stewart one of the more physical receivers they’ve faced. His offensive teammates see it in games.
“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,” Alabama tight end O.J. 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. I think that makes him really good.”
Being physical is how Stewart was raised so he doesn’t know how to play any other way.
“You have to hit them before they hit you,” Stewart said. “If I’m going to be hurtin’, when I’m hurtin’ I want them to be hurtin’ more than me.”
Just as Stewart Sr. and Stewart Jr. planned.