There’s a tinge of pride — a defiant pride — in Jack Stewart’s voice when the question is raised about just how it was he came to the attention of the Michigan football staff.
Is it true? You’ve never been to a football camp or combine?
“I have never been to a football camp or a combine,” Stewart replied matter-of-factly.
Stewart’s journey to committing to Michigan for the 2019 class is unusual in a time when talent evaluation has grown from a cottage industry to big business. The tackle from New Canaan, Conn., relied on his high school game tape, the advice of his father and the connections of his coach to earn 17 offers, including 12 from Power 5 conference schools since late February.
The recruiting services don’t know much about the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Stewart; he is rated a 3-star prospect and ranked No. 1,021 overall by the 247Sports composite but his absence from camps and combines affects how much scouts get to see him. New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli has a long relationship with Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. Marinelli sent Stewart’s tape to Brown, asking him to take a look and pass it along to offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
Face-to-face meeting cements commitment
Warinner liked what he saw on video. He just needed to meet Stewart.
“He wanted to see me,” Stewart said. “He was pretty confident he wanted to offer me after watching my film but he wanted to make sure I was 6-5, 280 pounds. He wanted to make sure I was who I said I was.”
The visit to Michigan on April 6 marked the beginning of a weeklong father-son road trip that included stops at Wisconsin, Notre Dame and a Lone Star State segment to Texas, TCU, Texas A&M and Baylor. They had previously visited Arizona, Arizona State and Boston College.
“It was a trip any father and son would love to take,” said Mike Stewart, Jack’s father. “We figured if we were going [to Michigan], we might as well go see these other schools. It was good, but I didn’t realize how good it would be because it gave us the comparative analysis that we needed. My son likened it to going to Disney everyday but you’re going on the same rides everyday.”
A few days after the Stewarts returned to Connecticut, Jack made his decision.
“All those schools were great but I fell in love with Michigan. Michigan felt like home,” Jack Stewart said. “First off, Coach Warinner. Watching him in the meeting room, watching him on the field, he looks like he can make me a better offensive lineman. Then the new strength and conditioning coaches are great. When I sat down with coach [Jim] Harbaugh, that went really well, too.”
‘He jumps out at you’
Mike Stewart played running back at Yale in the mid-1980s. He was a senior in 1987 when Brown arrived for the first of his five seasons there as defensive coordinator.
He has a good sense of how good his son can be. Mike Stewart never felt the need to push his son to participate in camps or combines that almost every other prospect attends in hopes of getting noticed by college coaches.
“I knew about a year, a year and a half ago, that Jack was going to be a very good football player, so I figured they would find him,” Mike Stewart said. “My wife (Terri) brought it up: ‘Should we go to combines and camps?’ Personally, I didn’t see a need for it. I figured they’d see his film over time. I honestly didn’t think he would catch on as fast as he did, but I’m his father, so I’m a believer in him.
“The beauty in today’s world is with Hudl and all the film that’s out there, it’s pretty easy to get exposure.”
It doesn’t hurt that New Canaan is one of the most successful high school programs in Connecticut. Marinelli has coached there 37 seasons, winning 321 games and 12 state titles. He’s coached several Division I players over those years, including current TCU starting right tackle Lucas Niang. The same day Stewart committed to Michigan, Jack Conley, New Canaan’s other 2019 tackle, committed to Boston College and 2020 quarterback Drew Pyne committed to Notre Dame.
“Most kids go to these combines to get noticed, but this kid is easy to notice right off the film because he jumps out at you,” Marinelli said about Stewart. “He’s a special kid. He’s a wrestler and he’s aggressive as hell. He’s the kind of kid that you’ve got to say, ‘Look, when the whistle blows, you’ve got to stop.’ Instead of telling kids, ‘You’ve got to play until the whistle blows,’ he’s just the opposite.”
‘May not be as pretty, but he’ll kill you’
Jack Stewart said he doesn’t feel he missed out on any experiences by taking the recruiting route he took. It was the right call for him and his family. He placed second in the state Class L wrestling tournament this year and competes in Olympic-style weightlifting.
He considers his speed a major attribute.
“I look for speed in a tackle,” he said. “I think the game is changing, and tackles are becoming faster and faster to compensate with the defensive ends that are becoming faster and faster.”
Connecticut has become a solid recruiting spot for Michigan the past couple of years in large part to Brown’s connections to the Northeast. Wide receiver Tarik Black (Cheshire Academy), fullback Ben Mason (Newtown) and tackle Andrew Stueber (Darien) were part of the 2017 recruit class. Tight end Luke Schoonmaker (Hamden Hall) signed with the 2018 incoming class.
Black and Mason earned significant roles as freshmen, while Stueber has been part of the rotation competing for the starting tackle jobs this spring. Darien and New Canaan are archrivals.
“The guy that beat our brains in for years,” Marinelli said of Stueber. “I think Stueber might be a little bit bigger than Jack, but I think Jack is a little bit stronger. I don’t know Stueber’s numbers but I do know Jack’s. Jack is strong and aggressive.
“I think Stueber may be more of a technician, whereas Jack may not be as pretty but he’ll kill you.”
Stewart’s experience won’t change how the majority of players get their names out in the recruiting circles. It does go to show that old-school networking and relationships are still at the heart of the process.
“At the end of the day,” Mike Stewart said, “I think Michigan is very lucky to have him, and I think he’s very lucky to have Michigan.”