The gregarious Jonathan Stewart hopes to join A&M's pantheon of playmakers at linebacker
By Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
As he grins playfully and answers questions comically each week at Texas A&M football press conferences - essentially holding court and entertaining media members with an array of yarns and one-liners -it's obvious that senior Jonathan Stewart, Texas A&M's unstoppably exuberant middle linebacker, genuinely enjoys connecting with people.
The gregarious Louisianan is admittedly a spotlight hound, but don't think for a minute that Stewart is merely putting on a show for the media. Simply spend a few moments with him in other settings, as he mischievously interacts with teammates, jokes with fellow students on campus and cheerfully obliges postgame photo or autograph requests from fans, and it's obvious that Stewart possesses a people-oriented personality.
He stands tall at 6-foot-4, but he doesn't look down on anyone he encounters. His 245-pound frame casts an imposing shadow, but his vibrant smile lights up a room. And, while Stewart plays the middle linebacker position on Saturdays with tremendous intensity, he never takes himself too seriously when he is not on the football field.
He possesses a gift for gab, a positive persona and an interesting perspective on practically everything. In fact, Jonathan Stewart is the kind of guy you might actually like to meet in a dark alley, as he'd undoubtedly strike up a conversation that would leave you laughing or contemplating his deep thoughts.
"I'm just a regular guy, and I sure don't take myself too seriously," said Stewart, who made the 24th start of his collegiate career against Arkansas. "I know some college football players see themselves as being better than other students, but that's not how I see myself. I see myself as someone who happens to be good at football, and it happens to be a sport that everyone loves, which is why I happen to be in the spotlight.
"But that doesn't make me more special than any other student. We're all working on our future here at A&M. The only time I'm different from them is when I'm on the field in front of all those fans, which is why a lot of people know who I am now. But there are a lot of students on this campus who are probably better at math than I am at football. The difference is that people don't tailgate for math tests, and there isn't a bunch of media coverage for engineering conferences. But that doesn't mean those students are any less important than me. You know what I mean? We're all Aggies, and we're all in this thing together."
The 21-year-old Stewart is certainly an interesting Aggie who is thoroughly enjoying his time at Texas A&M. He's a solid student in the sport management program, but he has totally immersed himself in the history of Aggie football.
He has become quite a knowledgeable regarding A&M's defensive reputation and the school's Linebacker U lineage. Without hesitation, he rattles off the names of great linebackers in the past, mentioning Quentin Coryatt, Aaron Wallace, Keith Mitchell, Dat Nguyen, Marcus Buckley and others, and pointing out that he proudly wears the same No. 11 jersey that was once worn by fellow linebackers such as Johnny Holland and William Thomas…before he was born in 1990.
Stewart says he'd love to have a dominating senior year so that he might one day be mentioned in the same breath with some of those Wrecking Crew legends of demolition and destruction. But he is also acutely aware of the fleeting nature of his college career. While Stewart is perpetually a kid at heart, he has an extremely mature outlook on his own role in the grand scheme of Texas A&M football.
"You look at all the great linebackers who have played here, and you hope when you leave that you have established a legacy and some younger guy will eventually come along and say that he wants to be like Jonathan Stewart," said Stewart. "Von Miller didn't start his career at A&M in really incredible fashion, but his last two years were phenomenal. When we lost in the Cotton Bowl (at the end of the 2010 season), I told him, ‘Don't hang your head. You've left a legacy, and a lot of people want to be just like you.'
"I think that is what every player should strive to be, but I realize my time here is growing short. I have about (seven or eight) games left—if I'm lucky and stay healthy - and after that, they are going to strip my nameplate off my locker, go recruit somebody else and look for my replacement. Some guys think they are so important that they can't even envision the program going on without them. Not me. I've been around long enough and seen enough guys come and go that I understand the big picture much better."
Likewise, Stewart now has a much better understanding for what he needs to do the rest of this season in order to reach his personal and team-oriented goals. He has matured tremendously as a football player in a short amount of time, and if he can continue that progress throughout the rest of this season, he could, indeed, have one of those senior seasons that leave a lasting impression.
"He can be as good as he wants to be," Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "I really believe that. With him, I think having a few different coaches along the way (at A&M) has helped him. He's seen a lot of different systems, and he has benefitted from those guys he worked with and played with in the past.
"In this (current) system, he is the quarterback of the defense. It has been great on game day bouncing things back and forth with him. He comes up with ideas, and the more we are together, the more I think he is going to understand the way I think and vice-versa. Football makes sense to Jonathan. He really has a mind for the game, and he's growing up as a player."
DETAIL-ORIENTED AND DRIVEN
Looking back on his football career, Stewart shakes his head and grimaces regrettably at the memory of one game, in particular. It was a game he played before arriving at Texas A&M. Prior to his high school career at Shreveport Byrd, too.
"I played with a (youth) league team called the West Shreveport Tigers, and we were the best little league team ever," Stewart said, his tone of voice rising with excitement. "We won our city championship nine years in a row. We were coached by my dad and my friend's dad. During those nine years, we lost one game. One game, that's all.
"That one game still burns me up. We only lost it because it was raining and our defense was slipping around. I'd love the chance to play that game again, but we obviously learned our lesson. We never lost again."
That may have been the first time Jonathan Stewart benefitted from a tough lesson on the football field, but it certainly wasn't the last. He has made steady progress throughout his high school and college career by learning from mistakes and all of those players and coaches around him.
Stewart, the youngest boy in his family, has two older brothers and two older stepbrothers, so he learned to be tough out of necessity. But even as he starred in the youth leagues in Shreveport, Stewart had no illusions of ever playing big-time college football.
Prior to Stewart, the last Division I-A player to come through C.E. Byrd High School—the largest high school in Shreveport - was Arnaz Battle, a Parade All-American who played quarterback at Notre Dame and later played wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Interestingly, Battle made his first collegiate start as a quarterback for Notre Dame against Texas A&M on Sept. 2, 2000, leading the Irish past the Aggies, 24-10, in South Bend.
In 2000, Stewart was 10, and by the time he reached Byrd High School, he just hoped that one of the smaller schools in the state - perhaps a school like Louisiana-Monroe or Louisiana Tech - might eventually notice him.
"While he was growing up, I coached him, but I didn't envision him playing college football then," Stewart's father, James, said from his home in Shreveport. "I just wanted to keep him active, and he seemed to enjoy football, so we were just enjoying the moment at the time. It probably wasn't until he went to an LSU camp between his sophomore and junior year that I even considered that he might have a chance to be a player at a bigger school. They liked him at the LSU camp, then he improved and played well his junior year. That's when he started to get noticed."
Stewart recorded 109 tackles, three sacks and intercepted a pass during his junior year at Byrd, and on April Fool's Day the following spring, he was notified that he had received a scholarship offer from Mississippi State.
"I honestly thought it was a joke at first," Stewart said. "But once I got my first offer, I had two more in the next two days. Eventually, I narrowed it down to Texas Tech, California, and Texas A&M, and after I made my official visits, my dad and I made a checklist. We prioritized the pros and cons on a three-point scale system, everything from academics, to the stadium, to the number of good-looking girls on campus - hey, I'm just being honest here - and A&M was the clear choice."
Stewart also played extremely well as a high school senior, registering 115 tackles and being chosen as a Louisiana Top 15 recruit by SuperPrep. He was part of the same recruiting class at A&M that delivered fellow Louisianans Patrick Lewis and Michael Lamothe. It was Mike Sherman's first full recruiting class, and it also included current starters such as Christine Michael, Spencer Nealy, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Sean Porter, Ryan Swope and Steven Terrell.
Right after National Signing Day in 2009, Byrd head coach Mike Suggs suggested that Stewart could be the kind of player who could make an immediate impact at A&M, and he was right. Playing for former A&M defensive coordinator Joe Kines, Stewart appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman in '09. He started seven games at outside linebacker and finished the year by making three tackles against Georgia in the Independence Bowl, which was held in his hometown.
While Stewart made a solid contribution as a true freshman, it wasn't like he shocked the world by breaking into the starting lineup for a dominant defense like Alabama or LSU. The '09 A&M defense ranked 105th nationally (out of 120 teams) and allowed at least 30 points or more in nine of 13 games.
Kines resigned following the conclusion of the 2009 season, and he was replaced as defensive coordinator by Tim DeRuyter, who instilled a 3-4 alignment. Sherman also hired Nick Toth as outside linebackers coach and former A&M legend Dat Nguyen, the leading tackler in school history, as inside linebackers coach. One of the first moves the new defensive staff made was to insert Stewart back into the middle of the defense.
But it was not necessarily a smooth transition. Stewart, who recorded 28 tackles as a true freshman in '09, was practically lost in the shuffle behind inside linebackers Michael Hodges and Garrick Williams. While the defense, led by Miller and Hodges, improved dramatically in 2010—going from 105th nationally in '09 to 55th in '10 - Stewart seemed to regress.
He did not start any games in 2010, and he made only seven tackles all season long. Even when Hodges went down with a knee injury in the Cotton Bowl, the A&M coaches replaced him with the now-departed Kyle Mangan, not Stewart.
"When I got switched to inside linebacker following my freshman year, I probably didn't learn it as quickly as I needed to, which was my own fault," Stewart said. "I really dedicated myself halfway through the season to learning everything I could, but I was behind and I knew I really needed to absorb everything Coach Nguyen was telling me.
"I learned a lot from watching Michael Hodges, and then Coach Nguyen really helped me on the mental side of the game. He would teach you all sorts of stuff to look for on film and teach you how you can read a guy's eyes pre-snap to get an idea about what play is coming next. He showed you little things, and I just tried to take it all in and learn from the best."
Stewart proved to be an excellent learner, as he won the starting role at one inside linebacker position and led the entire team in 2011 with 98 tackles and 55 solo stops. He also contributed 5.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Stewart may have been the most improved player on the roster last season, but the 6-6 regular season resulted in the dismissal of Sherman and the former coaching staff.
That meant yet another defensive coordinator, another position coach and another scheme for Stewart to adjust to and learn. Under Kevin Sumlin and Snyder, the Aggies returned to the 4-3 alignment, and Stewart has continued to evolve as a player and leader in the new system.
"He has matured a lot as a player and a person since he has been at A&M," his father, James, said. "His approach after his sophomore year changed, and he didn't take things for granted. He had some issues his sophomore year, and he overcame that. His football knowledge has always been good, but he probably thought too much in the past instead of just seeing things and reacting.
"He has been exposed to a lot of different systems because of the many coaches and coordinators that he has played for at A&M, which can be both good and bad. I am his biggest fan and his biggest critic, so I really see both sides. I think sometimes he can be too analytical. But I like his energy level, and he is making improvements. He's getting there, and I think he is becoming a good leader."
Stewart has set some lofty goals for himself and his team regarding the rest of this season and beyond. And one thing he has learned the last two seasons is that there is no time like the present to begin accomplishing those goals. Stewart says that one of the biggest mistakes he made early in his collegiate career was thinking that everything was going to magically fall into place just because he grew older.
On the contrary, he has discovered that developing into a top-flight player on the major college level requires around-the-clock focus and relentless preparation.
"After my sophomore season, I realized that I only have two more years of college left, and the first two years flew by faster than I could have ever imagined," Stewart said. "My ultimate goal is to reach the NFL, and following that year, I realized I only had 24 interviews left. I consider each game as a job interview for the next level. To get to the NFL you have to be an elite player and do something to stand out in those ‘interviews.'
"I looked around and saw students who didn't play sports dedicating themselves to the books, so that they can have success being lawyers or geologists. I wanted to have success in the NFL, so I dedicated myself to the game. And not just playing the game. You have to study, you have to hydrate all week, eat right, watch film and do the little things. (Baltimore Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis has said that greatness is a whole lot of little things stacked on top of each other. I really believe that's true, and I am trying to stack together as many positive things as I can in the time I have left at A&M. I want to leave a legacy."
Part of the legacy he'd like to leave behind has to deal with his leadership abilities. As the quarterback of the defense, Stewart calls the defensive sets and packages in the huddle, which places him naturally in a position of leadership. And he certainly possesses the people skills to say what needs to be said, whether that's providing encouragement or stressing the need for improvement.
Most of all, though, Stewart says he wants to lead by example, as he did in the 2012 season opener when he recorded 17 tackles against Florida. He'd love to play well enough to be considered as an All-SEC candidate, and he expects to play at the next level. Not surprisingly, he has his NFL future mapped out very specifically, as he has spent plenty of time contemplating future possibilities.
"I would eventually love to be a general manager in the NFL if everything doesn't go as planned," Stewart said. "But actually, the perfect plan is to play in the NFL and save plenty of money, invest it in stocks and have a huge return on those investments. Then I'd like to retire from the NFL at the age of 32 and be set for life. I don't mind renting, living in small apartments and being cheap for 10 years or so to be set for the rest of my life. That's the plan, at least."
Interesting plan from an extremely interesting, deep-thinking person.cheerfully obliges postgame photo or autograph requests from fans, and it's obvious that Stewart possesses a people-oriented personality.