At this time last year, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t buying the Evan Stewart hype.

That wasn’t necessarily my belief that Stewart’s 5-star status was unwarranted, or that he had major character concerns. Nope. Nothing like that.

But I wanted to temper some lofty expectations.

The list of sub-6 feet receivers who waltz into the SEC and look the part from the jump playing exclusively on the outside is virtually non-existent. That was part of it.

The other part of it was Jimbo Fisher. Specifically, how rare it was to see any true freshman emerge in his offense. At A&M, Ainias Smith had the best season of a true freshman wide receiver under Fisher, and he topped out at 248 receiving yards (Jalen Wydermyer also had 447 yards as a true freshman tight end). During Fisher’s time at FSU, Rashad Greene (598 yards in 2011) and Travis Rudolph (554 yards in 2014) were the only true freshman receivers who surpassed 300 yards.

So my assumption was that Stewart was not about to explode, especially for a coach who still hadn’t had a top-30 passing offense in the post-Jameis Winston era.

But a year later, I’m willing to admit Stewart exceeded my expectations and then some.

It wasn’t just that he set the record for a true freshman receiver under Fisher (649 yards), and he only needed 10 games to do it. Stewart’s 64.9 yards per contest ranked No. 8 among all SEC players in 2022, and he was No. 2 behind Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt with 5.3 catches per game.

Mind you, that was for an A&M offense that was a disaster. The Aggies didn’t hit 30 points against FBS competition until the regular-season finale against LSU. They started 3 different quarterbacks. Injuries across the board, including a season-ender to top returning receiver Smith, meant that A&M had all sorts of issues that should’ve impacted a true freshman trying to get settled in.

Yeah, about that.

Stewart, as he often does, took flight. Freshman ceiling, be gone. There are a new set of expectations. Becoming one of the nation’s top wideouts is well within his reach. So is becoming Fisher’s first 1,000-yard receiver at A&M. To think that hasn’t happened in College Station since 2016 is wild.

Before you try and poke holes in Stewart’s freshman production and say that he was just force-fed targets in a limited offense, hear this: He hit the century mark against Alabama. As a sub-6 foot receiver, he lined up on the outside on 88% of his offensive snaps, yet he still managed at least 5 catches in 7 of the 10 games he played in. Plenty of those grabs were of the highlight-reel variety.

Of course, Stewart’s freshman year wasn’t without a few bumps along the way.

After opting out in the middle of his senior season of high school, he didn’t play against Miami because he was suspended for a violation of team rules and he missed the UMass game with an undisclosed injury. Stewart also dealt with an ankle injury during spring camp, though he still hauled in 9 catches in the spring game, which prompted some praise from his head coach.

It’s been an eventful start to his career, and not just because he has 2.1 million TikTok followers and an NIL deal with Coach.

Nothing Stewart does will be considered quiet. But he does quietly have a strong case to at least be a second-team All-SEC guy entering 2023.

You can’t put him ahead of the likes of Malik Nabers and Juice Wells, both of whom finished in the top 5 in receiving and return with the same starting quarterback. But outside of that? Stewart is absolutely in that second tier of returning SEC receivers which includes the likes of Dominic Lovett, Ladd McConkey, Bru McCoy, Ricky Pearsall and others.

In that group, it’s all about preference. I prefer Stewart and McCoy, though what Lovett and Pearsall did in bad passing offenses was certainly impressive. None of them are bad choices for second-team All-SEC honors entering this season.

Stewart joined a pretty exclusive list of SEC true freshman pass-catchers to average 60 receiving yards per game Playoff era (min. 9 games):

  • Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk, 77.6 (2015)
  • LSU WR Kayshon Boutte, 73.5 (2020)
  • Alabama WR Calvin Ridley, 69.7 (2015)
  • MSU WR Jaden Walley, 65.3 (2020)
  • Texas A&M WR Evan Stewart, 64.9 (2022)

Even Georgia star Brock Bowers didn’t quite average 60 receiving yards per game as a true freshman. Don’t get it twisted. Bowers was arguably the best tight end in America as a true freshman, but that shows you why one shouldn’t scoff at Stewart’s production.

What remains to be seen is how that will shake out with some new surroundings in Year 2.

Smith suffered a season-ending injury last September, and he’s back to contribute significantly as A&M’s primary slot receiver. That could take away from some of Stewart’s target share, or it could keep some of the attention off of him (Moose Muhammad III will also help with that).

Fellow class of 2022 signee Conner Weigman is expected to be the full-time starting quarterback after taking over late last season. Stewart had 1 game with Weigman in which he was heavily featured (88 yards and a score against Ole Miss) and 2 others in which he had a combined 7 catches for 51 yards.

The ultimate wild card, of course, is Bobby Petrino.

One would think that Petrino’s ability to run more tempo and attack downfield should benefit someone like Stewart. That’s not to say A&M is going to suddenly look like Tennessee, but the criticism with the Aggies’ offense under Fisher was that it became too predictable. There wasn’t enough pre-snap misdirection and speeding up the tempo wasn’t a priority.

As a result, A&M had a total of just 8 passing plays of 40 yards over the past 2 seasons. That was dead last in the SEC and tied with Arizona State for the worst among Power 5. Even the Mike Leach Air Raid, which rarely attacked downfield, had 10 such completions in that 2-year stretch. Anything is more promising than A&M’s previous downfield passing game, and Stewart’s skill set stands to benefit from that.

It’s not crazy to think that Stewart could become the first 1,000-yard receiver of the Fisher era at A&M. The last time Fisher produced a 1,000-yard receiver was Rashad Greene at Florida State in 2014, AKA the final year of the Jameis Winston era.

Fisher was right to finally surrender play-calling duties, and he might’ve been right about something else.

Stewart has a chance to be a special, special guy when it’s all said and done.