Aug. 5, 2016
By Jon Cooper – The Good Word –
Big plays are a big part of Georgia Tech’s explosive offense.
Brad Stewart is no stranger to big plays and made one of the biggest of Tech’s big plays last year. His 36-yard reception on a fourth-and-five rainbow from a rolling out Justin Thomas with just over three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against Florida State was the sixth-longest for Tech on the season and set up the game-tying field goal, which, in turn set up maybe the most dramatic finish to a game of the entire 2016 college football season.
It was the most dramatic catch of the season for the speedy 6-1, 197-pound wideout, who played in all 12 games as a freshman, starting five of them, including the final three of the season, and finished fifth on the team in receptions (7) and receiving yards (93).
But he’s the first to admit that the catches didn’t come as frequently as he would have liked. He didn’t have catches in the two games preceding or following FSU, had but one multi-catch game and only one set of back-to-back games with a receptions. He’s determined to raise his game this year.
“Last year, starting as a freshman, I definitely realized that there’s a lot that needed to be done in order for me to be successful as a receiver here,” said Stewart, who starred on both sides of the ball — playing wide receiver and defensive back — at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, part of a three-sport career which saw him named Savannah’s most versatile high school athlete his junior and senior years. “So I’ve been working really hard this off-season and just been grinding and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot stronger and faster, which should show next season. We’ll see.”
Seeing more of Thomas, who is in his third year as Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback, will help.
“We’ve talked about getting on the same page with Justin, knowing what we’re going to do, when we’re going to do it and if something changes how it’s going to be done,” Stewart said. “Just realizing that what we call and what the defense is going to run is going to be two different things and you’re going to have to be able to adjust on the run. The biggest thing, is experience. We’re going to have experience coming back. So I’m really excited to see what the outcome will be.”
Stewart took positive vibes into the off-season, as his back-to-back games with catches came in the Jackets’ final two games, at Miami and against Georgia. He took that positivity and the desire to improve into the spring and summer and is super-keyed up for the start of fall camp.
Receivers coach Al “Buzz” Preston has high expectations for Stewart and is eager to see him continue to keep growing.
“I just want to see him perform at a level where he is out there getting it done, sustaining things and pushing through and when we call on him he’s ready to make a play and understands what he’s got to do,” said Preston. “That’s the key for all of them. There’s a great opportunity for one or two or three or four to be a guy that can be the go-to kind of guy.”
Stewart agrees and has worked tirelessly to fine-tune his game.
“I’ve been working pretty hard in the weight room and with conditioning and speed training, trying to get just a little bit better for the season,” he said. “Our strength and conditioning coaches, have helped me out a lot with getting stronger but at the same time staying flexible and being able to run with the weight that I have. That’s a big thing. You want to still be able to run and be as agile as before so that’s the biggest thing. There’s a lot of potential quickness with me and I’ve been working at it and I’ve been getting quicker and quicker every week. So we’ll see how the progress goes with the season.”
Preston appreciates the sentiment and while he hopes Stewart has grown, he’d prefer to see Stewart and all his receivers come up big rather than simply be big.
“I don’t want them bigger and stronger because usually if they’re bigger and stronger, they’re slower. I want him to be stronger but not bigger, necessarily,” Preston said. “My thing is, and I keep emphasizing with all the guys, the biggest thing usually is quickness and speed because those two factors cancel all theory. I thought he got stronger. I saw some good things but I want to see some things get even better as far as getting off the press and doing different things and just going out there and executing what you know you should be doing at times vs. sometimes going back to some of your younger issues. So that’s where I want to see him improve and I want to see that in all of them.
“What you have to do, which we didn’t get this spring, you have to get that consistency,” he added. “That consistent performance every time they’re out there in practice and then, when you go on into the game, you get that same thing, consistency.”
The Jackets return three of their top four receivers from last season, including leading receiver Ricky Jeune, and bring back Antonio Messick, as well as redshirt freshmen Harland Howell and Christian Philpott and a slew of talented freshmen, so the competition promises to be intense.
Stewart is up for the challenge but also has given himself another option to see the field and again get the chance to shine on fourth down, but not necessarily in keeping drives alive. He took turns fielding punts during the spring and isn’t shy about putting his body on the line doing so during the season. It’s a spot that the Jackets need to fill with the graduation of former all-ACC returner Jamal Golden.
“It would be really cool to me. I did it in high school,” said Stewart, who returned one punt for seven yards last season against Duke on Sept. 26. “It’s a completely different level, bigger, faster guys running at you, but I still enjoy having that open space to see what you can do with the ball. That’s exciting.
“It’s definitely a mindset but at the same time, some people enjoy it,” he added. “That’s just one thing I enjoy is having the opportunity to get out there and try to make a play, be a playmaker.”