Not surprisingly, the hardest part of A.J. Steward’s transition to the receiver position has been the former quarterback’s ability to master his new responsibilities as a blocker.
Of course, it’s not the physicality of the position that has given the 6-foot-4, 229-pound third-year sophomore fits. It’s the little guys tearing across the field that have been making his life difficult.
“A lot of people probably think I can overpower them,” Steward said. “But they just try to run around me.”
Shifty defensive backs notwithstanding, Steward’s transition to receiver marks one of the Kansas University football team’s most intriguing position switches this offseason. After two seasons spent trying to find the right fit for the athletic St. Louis native, the team’s coaches might have figured out a way to get Steward on the field with some regularity.
He arrived in Lawrence in the fall of 2007 as a quarterback, earning scout-team offensive player-of-the-year honors during his red-shirt season. But faced with an unfriendly situation at the position entering the ’08 season — at that point he was among a group that included Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Tyler Lawrence and Kale Pick — he was moved to tight end last summer.
Initially, he seemed to figure in nicely at a position recently vacated by NFL-bound Derek Fine. A lack of major playing time, however — he caught just one pass for six yards while playing behind starter Tim Biere —led Kansas’ coaching staff to reconsider Steward’s future.
In the end, they decided his best shot at contributing would be at receiver, a position rife with talent but a spot where he could provide a nice complement to standouts Dezmon Briscoe, Meier and Johnathan Wilson.
“He’s big and athletic enough to play in space, and we don’t use a tight end a whole lot in the box,” said Kansas coach Mark Mangino. “... So we use him as what we call a little ‘Y’, and just kind of split him out.”
So far, Steward appears to be settling in nicely. During KU’s Spring Game on April 11, his first public action at the position, he showed glimpses of his potential. He finished with three catches for 37 yards, including a 25-yard reception down the right sideline from Reesing.
Although he has endured the normal growing pains associated with a position switch — this is the second straight year he’ll be starting the season in an unfamiliar role — he says that his one-year spent moonlighting as a tight end has helped ease his transition to receiver.
It hasn’t hurt, either, that he’s got a pretty good mentor to turn to when in need of advice.
Meier, a former quarterback who developed into one of the conference’s top receivers in ’08, has provided a wealth of knowledge as Steward has attempted to pick up the nuances of his new role.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” said Steward, who will play receiver for the first time since his sophomore year at Riverview Gardens High. “I talk to him a lot about the position change. It gets hard at times, but I talk to him, and he pretty much helps me get through it.”
Following the Spring Game, Mangino seemed pleased with Steward’s progress, highlighting the player’s size and ball skills as two of his greatest strengths.
And after two seasons of playing a sort of positional musical chairs, Steward says he’s glad to finally be settled into a permanent role.
“I’m handling it pretty good,” said Steward. “It shows that the coaches really care about me, and they want me to help this team out, and they see something in me. And I appreciate that.”
Mum on suspensions: Speaking on a Big 12 conference call, Mangino declined to comment on whether receiver Dezmon Briscoe and/or running back Jocques Crawford are still suspended.
Mangino did say of offensive lineman Ben Lueken, who is back in town and taking classes, “Ben is doing well, feeling good, looks great, and he’s recovering well.”
Lueken was hospitalized after an incident in which he suffered injuries after having been either hit by or falling from the hood of a car. His football future is uncertain.
Lewis looks good: Rell Lewis, recruited to Kansas as a receiver and switched to running back, looked quick in gaining 56 yards on 12 carries in the spring game.
“Rell has made some real gains at running back for us toward the end of this spring,” Mangino said. “He has ability. With him, it’s been a situation where he needs to keep his focus and keep his work habits up, and that will help him to get on the field. He has talent. He can do some things to really help our team. He just needs to be a little bit more consistent about how he approaches the game.”
— Sports editor Tom Keegan contributed to this report.