TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s passing game is no longer primarily the Calvin Ridley show.
ArDarius Stewart has muscled his way into a co-starring role for the top-ranked Crimson Tide with a dogged running style after the catch and a knack for the deep ball.
Both delivered big plays and catches last season but it was Ridley who emerged as one of college football’s bigger receiving stars even as a freshman. It’s been a role held by eventual top-10 draft picks Julio Jones and Amari Cooper during Nick Saban’s decade in Tuscaloosa, but none have had a fellow receiver quite like Stewart.
“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,” Tide 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.”
Both have been really good this season heading into Saturday’s game at No. 19 Mississippi.
The 6-foot-1, 204-pound Stewart leads the SEC in receiving yards with nine catches for 203 yards and three touchdowns. He’s averaging 22.6 yards per reception.
Ridley has recovered from a slow start after topping even the freshman production of Jones and Cooper, and thus every other Tide receiver fresh from high school. He has 11 catches for 138 yards, but he calls Stewart the leader of Alabama’s receiving group, the guy keeping the other players motivated in games and practices.
“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,” Ridley said. “It just pumps everybody up.”
He tells Stewart that the junior is a “running back who can catch.” Stewart, who played on both sides of the ball in high school, said he plays with the mentality that he wants the defender to feel a hit more than he does.
“That’s how I was raised,” Stewart said. “You have to hit them before they hit you. If I’m going to be hurting, when I’m hurting I want them to be hurting more than me.”
The presence of the dual receiving threats has been a big help for young quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett, each of whom have found one or both downfield.
Stewart has catches of 71 and 39 yards from Hurts plus a 52-yarder from Barnett. Ridley has gains of 51 and 28 yards, both on Hurts passes. The result has been a passing attack that produced 351 yards against Western Kentucky and more big plays against USC.
Stewart’s production last season often got overlooked because Ridley was setting school freshman marks with 89 catches for 1,045 yards. It was the second most catches in FBS history by a true freshman behind Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree, who caught 134 passes in 2007.
Then there was Stewart. His 63 catches for 700 yards were easily the most by Alabama’s No. 2 receiver during coach Nick Saban’s nine seasons. No other No. 2 target has had more than 40 catches or 568 yards.
Those totals include a 38-yard catch on third-and-long to help set up a game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter of the national championship game against Clemson in January.
But he’s already topped his previous career high for yards in each of the Tide’s first two games.
Ridley, meanwhile, rebounded from a two-catch, 9-yard game against USC to catch nine balls for 129 yards against Western Kentucky.
Now, they’ll take the Ridley & Stewart show on the road.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org