Warren County grad Stewart emerging as red-zone weapon for Hornets

Shenandoah University sophomore Casey Stewart, a 2014 Warren County High School graduate, hauls in a touchdown pass during the second quarter of the Hornets' game against Gallaudet on Sept. 2 in Winchester. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Casey Stewart’s first interaction with Hayden Bauserman on the football field doesn’t exactly conjure up pleasant memories for the Shenandoah University sophomore wide receiver.

That came back in 2013, when both were seniors at Warren County High School and Central High School, respectively, and their two teams faced off in a late-season Bull Run District matchup ripe with playoff implications.

Stewart made his mark on that game – he hauled in a 78-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage – but Bauserman, Central’s record-setting quarterback, made things downright miserable for the visiting Wildcats, throwing for a career-high 350 yards and five touchdowns in a 47-20 blowout win.

“He scorched us in high school,” Stewart said, bursting into laughter when bringing up that game nearly four years later.

Stewart can laugh about it now. A pair of roundabout journeys following their high school graduations in 2014 landed both players at Shenandoah University, and now Stewart is on the winning side of Bauserman’s electric right arm. And after Stewart’s 2017 season debut, its safe to say Bauserman is thrilled to have the Front Royal native in his corner as well.

Casey Stewart

In Shenandoah’s 40-14 win over Gallaudet in the season opener last weekend, Bauserman tossed two second-quarter touchdown passes to Stewart, who entered the season with just one collegiate reception to his name.

Each TD came on a fade pass to the back-right corner of the end zone that Stewart soared high to snag, and suddenly the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Stewart has emerged as a red-zone threat – one that head coach Scott Yoder said the Hornets will “lean on” this season – among a deep group of SU receivers.

“I’m hesitant to say ‘safety blanket,’ but I mean he kind of is down there. For me especially, just being able to kind of put the ball up high, trusting that he’s gonna be able to go get it,” Bauserman said of Stewart’s presence in the red zone.

“I trust him fully to go up and make plays.”

Stewart’s height makes him a prime target inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, but Bauserman said after last Saturday’s win and reiterated on Wednesday that the sophomore wideout isn’t a “one-trick pony.”

After spending most of practice last season running routes as a potential deep-ball threat, Stewart said, he focused on becoming a better route runner in the offseason.

Stewart’s still growing in that aspect of his game – he took blame for Bauserman’s overthrow on a potential 25-yard touchdown pass against Gallaudet late in the second quarter, during which Stewart said he cut a post route too shallow down the middle of the field. But Stewart’s QB said his route running has vastly improved since last season.

“I think a lot of things that people don’t understand is you don’t have to be fast to create separation. If you run a nice, crisp route you’re gonna be open,” Stewart said.

“Another thing is I think last year I was a little rough on coming back to the ball and catching it when I’m running back towards it. I really worked on that, as well as hand work. When you’re running down the field (defensive backs) are gonna grab. It’s rarely ever gonna get called, so getting their hands off you is very important. So I think me creating separation and getting the DB’s hands off me has helped me very much as far as being a downfield threat.”

Stewart’s growth into a more well-rounded receiver is a testament to the work he’s put in since joining Shenandoah University’s football program at the urging of good friend and fellow Front Royal native Chris Grady – a defensive end for the Hornets – prior to the 2016 season.

Stewart, who transferred across town from Skyline High School to Warren County for his senior year, played just one season of high school football. He wouldn’t play again until joining up with the Hornets after attending a semester at Eastern Mennonite University – where he played basketball – in 2014 and West Virginia University for the 2015-16 school year.

Stewart credited former Warren County wide receivers coach Brandon Wakefield with “showing me the ropes” of playing the position in high school and helping to build Stewart’s confidence that he could play football at the collegiate level.

Even so, Stewart found he had much to learn about playing college football when he arrived at Shenandoah last year.

“There is so much stuff that you don’t really quite understand yet,” Stewart said of his freshman season. “… I didn’t work on foot firing in high school. I didn’t work on hand fighting in high school. Nobody jammed in high school. So you come in … as a freshman, you’re kind of towards the back, so you get to watch a lot. You’re kind of looking and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never experienced any of this. When I get up there what am I gonna do?’

“I think that’s something that (SU receivers coach Ben Taylor) has really kind of worked with everybody with is the importance of getting off the line because if you can’t get off the line, you can’t run your route. And if you can’t get the DB’s hands off you he’s gonna be there to break up the play. I think that’s something that has really helped transform my game to the next level from high school to college.”

That improvement was enough for Hornets offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin to say with certainty at SU’s media day on Aug. 20 that Stewart would see an expanded role in 2017, an assertion that needed just one game to come to fruition.

Asked on Wednesday if he was ready to become a focal point of Shenandoah’s high-powered offense, Stewart replied, “Of course I am.”

“It’s something I love doing,” Stewart said, “and to be able to go out there and do it at a high level is pretty special.”