Jags back in no rush NFL: In his fourth year, James Stewart brings power on the ground and burgeoning confidence to Jacksonville's now-balanced offense.

September 17, 1998|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The running back the Jacksonville Jaguars always coveted was already in their midst. The balanced offense they always needed was there for the making.

It just took a little longer for James Stewart to fit the feature back profile and for the team to see its vision of a stout running game through.

Going into Sunday's prime AFC Central matchup against the Ravens, Stewart is the NFL's fifth-leading rusher as well as the focal point of the Jaguars' new-found ground game.

Three years after he weighed in as the 19th pick in the 1995 draft, Stewart is finally measuring up to his first-round billing.

"He's been a different runner for quite some time as he's gained confidence," said Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin. "It's probably been a two-year process.

"He's more powerful. He's faster. He's more determined. He's definitely a force when he pounds up in there. He has maturity and he has developed. We've felt good about James from the conclusion of last year on."

The Jaguars weren't so sure in the beginning, though. Playing for an expansion team behind a patchwork line, Stewart rushed for 525 yards and averaged 3.8 yards a carry his rookie year. He was criticized for going down too easily and for not getting the tough yards.

That started the Jaguars through a maze of alternative backs.

They claimed Natrone Means on waivers in March 1996.

They seriously considered drafting problem child Lawrence Phillips a month later.

They tried to sign unrestricted free agent Edgar Bennett last winter.

They tried to trade up to get Curtis Enis in this year's draft.

Means lasted two seasons before leaving this year as a free agent.

The Jaguars wisely passed on Phillips and failed to get Bennett or Enis. Then they drafted Florida's Fred Taylor in the first round and Iowa's Tavian Banks in the fourth this year.

And still, when the Jaguars opened the season, they ended up back at Stewart, who handily beat out Taylor for the starting job in the preseason.

"I handled it like I did in college," Stewart said this week of the long run of challenges. "We had two, three backs in college when I played. I was never the single guy. You deal with it."

Stewart, 26, shared time with both Aaron Hayden and Charlie Garner at Tennessee but still rushed for a school career-record 2,890 yards.

A rookie starter with the Jaguars in 1995, Stewart beat out Means in 1996 but lost the job due to a late-season injury in Baltimore. When Means was hurt a year later in a game against Philadelphia, Stewart became the fourth player in NFL history to score five rushing touchdowns in one game.

This season, Stewart rushed for a career-high 115 yards against Chicago and 103 against Kansas City. Despite his strong start -- 218 yards on a 4.2 average carry -- he insists he is not looking for vindication.

"I don't have anything to prove to anybody but myself," he said.

Nevertheless, he has proven plenty. At 6 feet 1 and 233 pounds, Stewart breaks tackles and grinds for the tough yards now. He was relentless Sunday against the Chiefs. On one play midway through the second quarter, he lost his helmet, "got splattered" in the pileup and had to leave the game.

In the second half, he ran 15 times for 59 tough yards.

A slashing runner, Stewart has a style suited to the new running scheme Coughlin installed after the Denver Broncos ran for 309 yards on the Jaguars in last season's playoffs. It starts with angle blocking and freedom of choice.

"We've given James the opportunity to pick his hole," said left guard Ben Coleman. "He's one of the strongest running backs in the league. He keeps his feet moving all the time, turning and twisting. Hopefully, this year will be his breakthrough season."

Stewart, whose season high in the NFL is 723 yards, won't allow himself to enjoy this good start, though.

"I don't think you can enjoy it," he said. "You have to keep pounding away and working hard. Things are going good, but like coach says, you never get too high or too low."

Jaguars at a glance

Last game: Defeated Kansas City Chiefs, 21-16, Sunday.

Last meeting with Ravens: Defeated Ravens, 29-27, on Nov. 30 in Jacksonville, Fla.

Who's hot: Running back James Stewart is the first Jaguar to have back-to-back 100-yard games. He has carried the ball 26 times each week and rushed for 115 yards against the Bears and 103 yards against the Chiefs. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith leads the team with 13 receptions for 147 yards and two touchdowns.

Who's not: The defense. The Jaguars have given up 243 yards rushing (20th in NFL) and 452 yards passing (18th in NFL) in their first two games. They have two sacks and no interceptions.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Sunday, 4: 15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Jaguars by 7

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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