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Friday, August 14, 1998

A&M's Stewart hopes to show QB creativity


Scripps Howard News Service

Branndon Stewart has started 24 games for Texas A&M, but quarterbacks coach Ray Dorr likes to talk about the one he didn't start. It was against Texas Tech, the seventh game of the 1997 season.

The week before, quarterback Randy McCown had been more effective than Stewart in a loss to Kansas State. Suddenly, the transfer from the University of Tennessee was No. 2 again.

"I watched him very carefully in the (Texas Tech) game," Dorr said. "He stayed in the game and helped Randy when he came to the sideline."

And when McCown faltered, Stewart came off the bench to complete 12 of 17 second-half passes, only to see the Aggies lose on a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds to play.

"Branndon had started every game before that," Dorr said. "The way he handled that is a real tribute to his character. I told his parents after the game I thought he had made a significant step."

Tennessee fans can appreciate the irony. Stewart lost the Vols quarterback job to Peyton Manning when both were true freshmen in 1994. Convinced he couldn't overtake Manning, Stewart transferred to Texas A&M. Then, after starting 18 consecutive games for the Aggies, Stewart was on the verge of losing another competition.

But in a last-minute loss to Texas Tech, Stewart won convincingly. He started the rest of the season, leading the Aggies to the Big 12 South Division championship. Afterward, his teammates voted him most valuable offensive player.

This season, more than the last one, might be the one in which Stewart finally becomes the quarterback so many UT fans envisioned when they clamored for the coaches to play him over Manning.

Last season, the Aggies wanted him to cut down on his mistakes and improve his completion percentage. Now they want him to become a playmaker.

"He's proved to us he can execute what we ask," Dorr said. "Now, we want to try and let him go out and play on his ability. We're asking him to get better, to become a higher-risk individual."

Strong and fast, Stewart looked like a playmaker in his first scrimmage at Tennessee. He looked like one in his first Texas A&M start, too, completing 20 of 28 passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against Brigham Young in the 1996 Aggies' season opener.

But with the game on the line, and the Aggies trailing, Stewart fumbled on a last-chance drive. In his next game, he threw four interceptions in a stunning loss to Southwestern Louisiana. He threw two more interceptions and completed only 10 of 26 passes in an ugly loss to Kansas State.

"We were so close so many times," Stewart said. "But nothing went our way."

The Aggies rebounded to win the South Division of the Big 12 last season. Stewart was a big reason for the turnaround. He completed 111 of 196 passes for 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns. Moreover, he went seven consecutive games without throwing an interception and threw only four all season (two in the conference playoff against Nebraska).

"I looked at every one of his tapes and I tried to build on the positives that were there," Dorr said. "Branndon had a good natural throwing motion."

But it wasn't without glitches.

"We worked extremely hard on developing a higher release and generating more velocity on his throws by getting his shoulders, chest and hips into the throw," Dorr said. "He also had a tendency to pull and move his head (on throws)."

Dorr will provide consistency as well as details. Coach Steve Kraigthorpe will be Stewart's fourth offensive coordinator in five years of college.

"I'm making better decisions, I know what the defense is doing and I understand coverages better," Stewart said. "Two years ago (when he first started for the Aggies), I hadn't been a starter in about two years. It was a change to go out there and go right into it. There were a lot of expectations."

The expectations are still there. The Aggies are favored to repeat as South Division champions, despite a daunting schedule.

The Aggies will play two national championship contenders - Florida State and Nebraska - in the first five games. They also must play another preseason top 25 pick, Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The Aug. 29 opener against Florida State had the Aggies' undivided attention when they reported for preseason practice Friday.

"We have talked about that all summer," Stewart said. "It's going to give us a chance for exposure against a team that plays on television all the time. Texas A&M needs to play games like this."

In a way, Stewart is fortunate to play against anybody this fall. Originally, his transfer from Tennessee was going to cost him two years of eligibility. But Texas A&M's NCAA compliance officer recommended Stewart appeal for another year of eligibility.

The NCAA granted the request, giving the former high school All-American from Stephenville, Texas, another year with the Aggies. And a chance to become a playmaker.

(John Adams writes for Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.)

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