Seattle Seahawks center Max Unger is asked about his former University of Oregon teammate Jonathan Stewart.
“He was a good player,” Unger said. Then he paused with an eye roll that seemed to indicate he had said something far too obvious: water wet, sky blue, Jonathan Stewart a good player.
Unger corrects himself: “He was a very good player.”
The eye roll repeats.
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He tries again, this time letting Stewart’s own exploits do the talking.
“We opened up in Houston at Reliant Stadium (in) 2005,” Unger said. “He towed seven or eight guys for like 50 yards. That one sticks out. I think the first time he touched the ball in Autzen Stadium he scored a touchdown – opening kickoff. A lot of good stuff.”
The good stuff started back at Timberline High School in Lacey where Stewart set the state career rushing record of 7,755 yards. Then it was on to Oregon where he became a first-team all-American. This season he is the leading runner for the Carolina Panthers and about to return home to face the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in their NFC divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field.
“Of course, you always have dreams of playing in the NFL, and maybe even envisioning yourself playing for the Seahawks – growing up in Washington and all those other things,” Stewart said this week. “Being able to play this playoff game back home is definitely going to be a cherished moment.”
Stewart also considered sticking around through his college career, but the Washington Huskies program was in flux then, with Tyrone Willingham taking over in 2005. Oregon’s stability won out.
The choice was certainly his as Stewart was rated the top running back in the country by Rivals.com, and virtually every school wanted him. That included Southern California, which was led by current Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. He didn’t land Stewart, but made a lasting impression.
“He was really a player’s coach, I guess you could say,” Stewart recalled. “There was a song by Snoop Dogg during the time that they were singing as a team. It was definitely a different experience than all my other trips.”
Stewart later recalled the song as “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”
Carroll didn’t recall the incident at all.
“That’s probably why we didn’t get him,” Carroll added. “My bad.”
Stewart’s college career lived up to expectations. In his final season, he set the school’s single-season records with 1,722 rushing yards and 2,481 all-purpose yards. He made the American Football Coaches Association all-America team and was a unanimous all-Pac-10 selection.
No one who saw Stewart terrorize defenders at Timberline or Oregon would have any trouble projecting his combination of speed and power into the NFL. Yet, his seven professional seasons have been more of a mixed bag, largely due to injuries including surgery on both ankles between the 2012 and ’13 seasons.
Over seven NFL seasons, he has played the full 16-game regular season three times – including his first two. Predictably, those also were his most productive seasons: 836 yards as a rookie in 2008, followed by a career-high 1,133 the next.
His best year since is the current one, when he has 809 yards in 13 appearances with a career-high eight starts.
“We’ve always known what he can be,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “… He grinds it out. He’s a physical runner. He really belongs in the same vein as Marshawn Lynch, who I really think is one of the best in the league right now. But it’s good having a guy that’s comparable to Marshawn. (Along with DeAngelo Williams) I think we are two of the better tandems in the league – it’s just right now the hot hand is Jonathan.”
Stewart likes the comparison.
“I love the way Marshawn runs — ‘Beast Mode,’ ” he said. “Being a Pac-12 guy, I played against him one time in college and always admired the way he runs as a big back, as a back who credits himself on breaking tackles and kind of taking over games in the way he does.”
Stewart also is a big back – listed at 5-foot-10, 235 pounds – with speed and balance.
He is also on a roll — a season-high 155 rushing yards in Week 14 at New Orleans; 122 in Week 16 versus Cleveland; 123 last weekend as the NFC South champion Panthers opened the playoffs with a 27-16 home win against wild card Arizona.
“He’s somebody that we respect a lot,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “I think it’s the tackles that he breaks, the yards after contact: what a strong runner. … He’s somebody that we hold in high regard.”
In the regular-season meeting in Week 8, Stewart gained 79 yards on 16 carries as the Seahawks won, 13-9, at Carolina.
“Low center gravity,” Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright said. “He does a good job of continuing to run his feet. He kind of reminds me of Michael Turner (formerly of the Chargers and Falcons), the way that he is short built and stocky. He’s real good.”
Just like Unger said.