Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Duluth's Anfernee Stewart is one of the county's top returning quarterbacks. The senior has several scholarship offers and is trying to lead the Wildcats to the playoffs for the first time since the mid 90s.
A big smile comes over Duluth coach Corey Jarvis' face when he recalls the first time he saw Anfernee Stewart.
At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and the build of a middle linebacker, Jarvis knew Stewart would be the centerpiece in rebuilding the Wildcats' football program.
"I thought he was one of the best athletes I've ever coached. He's a freak of nature, now," Jarvis said. "When I first saw him, I was like, he can play anything. He could be a linebacker, running back, quarterback, safety, corner, receiver. The only thing I don't think he could play is offensive line. I think he could probably play some defensive end."
Jarvis settled on playing Stewart at quarterback last year and he fit in nicely in the first-year coach's offense.
Stewart threw for 1,498 yards, the fourth-highest total in Duluth history. With another offseason and summer passing league under the quarterback's belt, Jarvis is expecting even better things out of Stewart this fall.
"I expect him to be 10 times better than he was last year," Jarvis said. "This year, he's doing a lot better as far as picking up little things."
Duluth went 4-6 last season and was one game away from making the state playoffs. The four victories match the total wins of the previous four seasons combined.
The success has pumped new life into Duluth and Stewart. His goal for this year is simple.
"State," Stewart said with a point-blank stare.
How far in the state playoffs?
"State, winning it all," he said matter of factly.
That might seem a little presumptuous considering Duluth hasn't been to the playoffs since 1994.
"Oh, we're going to the playoffs," Stewart said. "That's not even a question. My goal is state and I know our goal is state."
A postseason run could hinge on Stewart's play.
He completed 55 percent of his passes last year and threw 10 touchdown passes, while rushing for 459 yards and four TDs. His worst stat was six interceptions.
"I feel like I let my team down," Stewart said. "There were some throws that I could make that I didn't make. I could have done better."
Right before halftime against Norcross, Stewart threw an interception and the Blue Devils went up 14-0 before rolling to a victory over the Wildcats.
A similar situation happened in the final game of the regular season against Mill Creek. Stewart was injured and came back in the game to throw a pivotal interception. A different outcome in either game could have helped Duluth get in the playoffs.
"Everyone's hopes dropped after that," Stewart said. "It's me, man, I have to have my morale up so everyone else can have theirs up. I know my teammates have my back and if I do something wrong, I know they will be able to pick me up."
Part of Stewart's struggles hinged on a young, inexperienced offensive line. The Wildcats had to play with a makeshift line at times due to injuries and a lack of numbers. Stewart would never use that as an excuse, but with four returning linemen, he should have better protection this fall.
"The kids have a ton of respect for him," Jarvis said. "He works hard and his maturity level is beyond his years."
Although it's his second season as a starter, Stewart is still learning how to play quarterback. His parents wouldn't let him play football as a freshman because they were afraid he would get hurt. He played receiver and a little quarterback as a sophomore.
Last season was his first year as a full-time quarterback, but Stewart's future could be on the other side of the ball. The physical gifts Jarvis saw from Stewart have attracted college recruiters. He has more than a dozen scholarship offers, including Kentucky, Mississippi State, Michigan State, Purdue and Central Florida.
Stewart is being recruited as an athlete or defensive back, but for now Jarvis will rely on him to guide the Duluth offense.
"With our offense, we like an athletic quarterback," Jarvis said. "He has a cannon now. It's not like he's not a good quarterback. He fit the bill with what we are used to."