North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

January 16, 2013

Jeremy Johnson edges Fultondale's ArDarius Stewart for Mr. Football award

Pinson's Zach Cunningham named Class 5A Lineman of the Year

By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News

MONTGOMERY — It’s rare that Fultondale football standout ArDarius Stewart comes up short in any effort, but he did on Wednesday — just barely.

Stewart finished second in the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Mr. Football selection as the state’s best prep player. He lost by just two points — the slimmest margin in the 31-year history of the selection — to quarterback Jeremy Johnson of Carver-Montgomery.

The award was announced at the ASWA Player of the Year Awards Banquet, sponsored by the Alabama High School Athletic Directors and Coaches Association.

Johnson won out over Stewart by placing at the top of the ASWA Super 12 Team balloting, receiving 170 points to Stewart’s 168. Johnson took nine first place votes, Stewart five and Jordan Chunn of Madison County one.

No one was more surprised than Johnson himself, who fully expected Stewart to win the award.

“I thought he would win just because of all his amazing stats,” Johnson said afterward. “But when they called out ‘Jeremy Johnson,” I just dropped my head and thanked God.

Johnson came on strong late in the season to start turning heads, while Stewart has been in the spotlight for two full seasons. Johnson threw for 3,193 yards and 31 touchdowns for the Class 6A Wolverines, and also ran for 705 yards and seven touchdowns, as well as catching a touchdown pass.

Stewart scored 50 touchdowns in six different ways this season, placing him in the top 10 in the state record book for most touchdowns in a season — second only to his 52 touchdowns in 2011.

It takes a lot to get an emotional reaction from Stewart, and he was typically unfazed by coming in second by such as small margin.

“I came ready for anything, so I wasn’t really surprised,” Stewart said. “Actually, I came in thinking the worst, that I might not make 2A Back of the Year a second time. I don’t come in with a cocky attitude. I’m always nervous, thinking the worst coming in.”

As for his coach, Keith Register — who is departing the school to take over as head coach at Hayden — there’s no question which player is better.

“He’s the best ball player in the state, in my opinion,” Register said. “He does so much more everywhere — offense, defense, kicking game. He plays against 2A competition. But in our minds, he’s always number one.”

Stewart has verbally committed to play at Alabama, while Johnson has committed to Auburn. That might lead to a little rivalry when a certain ball game rolls around late each season.

Stewart was selected Back of the Year for the second straight year. And in Class 5A, Pinson Valley senior linebacker Zach Cunningham was chosen Lineman of the Year.

Cunningham came on strong later in the season, and flew under the radar for a while, so much so that he didn’t really start getting serious recruiting attention until October.

“I was very excited that I was nominated for the award,” Cunningham said. “My recruiting didn’t really begin until Week 9 of the season, so I wasn’t getting much attention until then.”

Cunningham is still very much undecided about his college choice, and is just now taking official visits to several schools. He just visited Auburn, with Oregon coming up this week and Vanderbilt next week, followed by Tennessee. More visits are in store for February, but Cunningham said he isn’t sure where those will be.

Cunningham’s Pinson teammate, receiver Earnest Robinson, has already committed to Auburn. Does that affect Cunningham’s decision?

“He’s got me thinking about it a lot. I think he’s pretty set in going there,” Cunningham said. “I went with him on the visit, and he’s trying to get me to go with him.”

Cunningham also made the Super 12 team, and finished in 10th place in the Mr. Football balloting. He and Stewart were the only two players from metro Birmingham to make the Super 12 team. They were among four players from the metro area to be named back or lineman of the year in their classification; Courtney Foy and Torradine Harris, both of Midfield, won the back and lineman honors, respectively,  in Class 3A.

Stewart was bidding to become the second player from north Jefferson County to be named Mr. Football. Gardendale’s Roderick Green won the award in its third year, in the 1984 season.

Disclosure: NJN Sports Editor Robert Carter is a member of the ASWA Prep Sports Committee, which selected the winners for these awards.