College Sports

Jonathan Stewart: His time is now

EUGENE, Ore. - After another Oregon Ducks' win, running back Jonathan Stewart had one more crease to find - to the tunnel leading to the team's headquarters at the Casanova Center.

Stewart had just spent the day navigating a wall of 11 Washington State defenders at Autzen Stadium - successfully, when called upon - but the army of waiting teenagers had doubled that total near the exit.

Swarmed, Stewart was halted in his tracks by the anticipating fans seeking his autograph. He politely obliged.

A few seconds later, a television microphone was situated in the middle of the huddle, near his face, for a few postgame sound bytes. He talked, he signed and eventually, was led away by a university sports information official to join his team.

"My time," Stewart said, "is everybody's time."

Almost three years have passed since Stewart set Washington's all-time rushing mark for Timberline High School in Lacey, and was the consensus No. 1 running back recruit in the country.

Instant stardom at Oregon, Stewart's school day favorite, was beset by nag ging injuries and a slower-than-expected adjustment to college football and life away from home.

In Year No. 3, Stewart has established firm footing in his surroundings, becoming the player everyone imagined when he left his native soil in 2005.

"I've had three years to adjust to this offense, and right now, I'm real comfortable," Stewart said. "It just took time. Time is so precious. Sometimes, it's going to take more time for certain people … but everything happens for a reason."

The Ducks are setting the pace in nearly every Pacific-10 Conference offensive category. Stewart has aided that in a big way as the conference's second-leading rusher (114.8 yards per game). He is first in average (7.0 yards per carry).

Stewart also leads the Pac-10 in kickoff returns, and could become the first player to lead the conference for three consecutive seasons.

"Jonathan … can run and jump out of the building, and knock down walls," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "But he's learning to run with his eyes. He's becoming a more patient (running back). He's being a more intelligent back. And he's becoming a more accomplished receiver."

Chip Kelly was hired this season from New Hampshire to serve as Oregon's offensive coordinator. Bellotti wanted to implement the option element in the spread offense, and Kelly's New Hampshire teams set school records using that scheme.

In the Ducks' case, the spread option ideally fit the personnel. Quarterback Dennis Dixon is a mobile passer. Add the power running of Stewart, and the fleet-a-foot style of tailback Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon's backfield has been a formidable unit to defend.

A season-ending knee injury to Johnson during Saturday's game against Washington State should only add to Stewart's role in the Ducks' offense, and to the attention he receives.

"I knew who Jonathan was. Everybody knew who he was - we've got cable TV in New Hampshire," Kelly said. "I like him. He's a great kid, works his tail off and has a tremendous attitude. He's not an 'I' guy. He just wants to win. He's a really special kid."

Against WSU, Johnson scored on a pair of first-quarter TD runs, including a 42-yarder on Oregon's first play. Stewart had a big role in that touchdown, even though he did not touch the ball. When he ran left, and Dixon faked a handoff to him, the Cougars followed Stewart, not Johnson.

"He's turned out pretty good," WSU coach Bill Doba said of Stewart.

Stewart's popularity has never been greater than it is now. His jersey is the top seller around campus. When his name comes over the loudspeaker for pregame introductions, the sold-out Autzen crowd harmoniously chants, "Snoop," his childhood nickname.

"You know you have to be a role model," Stewart said, "for whoever is watching."

His newfound comfort level has carried off the field, to his personal life.

Living in a house off-campus, he is surrounded by low-key people more like him - teammates Jairus Byrd and Titus Jackson.

"It's really fun, actually. It's almost like being in your own sanctuary when it's just the three of us," Byrd said. "We're kids again. We're in the house. We tell each other stories, hang out and relax."

Down time - Stewart dubbed it "Jonathan Time" - usually comes at night. He enjoys playing video games on the Xbox, and composing music on his keyboard.

"He's amazing. He can pick up almost anything musically by ear," Byrd said.

Deeply religious, Stewart always finds time to pray, or attend a service at Jubilee World Outreach near campus.

"You've got to find time for yourself," Stewart said. "The part of football, it takes up a lot of time. You've got to sit back and relax, be carefree about everything around you."

Home game weekends are special. His mother, Lora Faison, travels down to Eugene, sometimes with Cecil Daniels, his close friend and youth pastor from Lacey.

"She'll cook us something to eat," Stewart said. "It's usually chicken-and-something."

That thought brings a big grin to his face. Having a man-like physique since he was a teenager, Stewart is now finding that stride in other areas, too.

"That first year-and-a-half, with nobody supervising him, he struggled. I mean, he's a great kid, but he comes from a relatively small community where he did not get out much, so there was a little adjustment period," said Kevin Young, his former high school coach.

"It was pretty mature of him to realize he needed to live with the right people. I don't know of too many people who could withstand the temptations … of being the star. He has countless opportunities to make mistakes. I'm extremely proud of him of keeping his faith, and doing the right thing."