Stewart has grown into his role of star running back

See the itty-bitty seventh grader. He's 5-foot-3, maybe 135 pounds in his football uniform after a good Northwest drenching, just a spot of a shy child whose mother calls him "Snootie Pie."

The itty-bitty seventh grader isn't smiling. He's no longer the star of his football team, no longer the running back whom no one could take down. Suddenly, he's hitting the ground quicker and harder.

"Everybody had just started growing and I was still a pip-squeak," Jonathan Stewart recalled. "All my friends were bigger than me. I was like, 'Man, I'm not as good as I was in youth football.' It was kind of discouraging for me.

"But things changed."

That's for sure.

There are growth spurts, and then there's what happened to Stewart. Perhaps it was something in the water in Lacey, Wash., but that itty-bitty seventh grader transformed into a 5-foot-10, 200-pound high school freshman two years later, at which point he began gaining huge chunks of yardage -- a state-record 7,755 when he was done -- that made him the nation's top prep running back by 2004.

The itty-bitty seventh grader became a physical marvel, a chiseled 5-11, 230-pound mass of speed and power and potential, with eye-popping measurables -- the most celebrated recruit in Oregon history.

This season, however, he's become something else: A running back.

The conversation about Stewart used to focus on his 4.34 40-yard dash and his 402-pound power clean, but that never entirely muzzled whispers that for all his physical ability he wasn't an instinctual ball carrier.

Consider 2007 another sort of growth spurt, only this one expanded his patience, vision and decision-making. Stewart no longer tries to go the distance every play or run over every approaching defender or twist and turn for every extra yard and thereby risk the injuries that hampered his first two seasons.

The end result is this: He may be the best running back in the nation, apologies to Michigan's Mike Hart, Rutgers' Ray Rice and Arkansas' Darren McFadden.

"He's scary," said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who's been fretting over film of Stewart and Oregon's ludicrous-speed offense this week in preparation for the Pac-10 game of the year between his No. 4 Sun Devils and the No. 5 Ducks. "He reminds me quite a bit of [St. Louis Rams running back] Steven Jackson."

Stewart ranks seventh in the nation with 130.4 yards per game, but his per-carry average (6.69 yards) is tops among the top 25 running backs. He's also caught 14 passes, ranks 19th in the nation in kick returns and has eclipsed 100 yards rushing in each of Oregon's biggest games -- Michigan, California and USC.

Those numbers, combined with the Ducks' extended nesting in the nation's top 10, suggest that Stewart should be a Heisman Trophy candidate. But quarterback Dennis Dixon, the maestro of Oregon's spread offense, is presently the one with his name on the marquee.

No reason to gripe about that. Dixon, after all, does rank sixth in the nation in pass efficiency and 14th in total yards while leading the nation's best offense.

Still, this tandem is far closer to Lennon and McCartney than Batman and Robin.

So who should be the Ducks' leading Heisman candidate?

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti hems and haws on the question, calling Dixon the "triggerman" before adding that Stewart "carries this team on his back at times."

"I'm probably a little too close to the situation," he said. "It's hard to pick between those two."

USC coach Pete Carroll lauded Dixon's mobility as the difference-maker following his Trojans' defeat last weekend at Oregon, but also called Stewart the critical component of the Ducks' offensive rhythm.

Few would argue with 6-foot-7, 340-pound offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz, who gives the edge to the senior Dixon over the junior Stewart because of age, but his sentiments might be biased because Dixon unexpectedly pitched him the football against the Trojans, allowing Schwartz to rumble for 3 yards and rank 11th on the team's rushing list.

Schwartz hastens to add that he and his mammoth offensive-line mates certainly enjoy busting open holes for Stewart.

"The stuff he does is pretty amazing," Schwartz said.

For many reading this, the debate is purely academic, and not just because it's prudent to wait and see what Dixon and Stewart do against the Sun Devils' defense, which, statistically at least, is among the nation's toughest.

Many are still stuck on the fact that Stewart admitted that his mother calls him "Snootie Pie."

Those raised eyebrows present an opportunity to correct a mistake -- his nickname "Snoop" -- that has hounded Stewart for years. "Snootie Pie" became "Snoot" among Stewart's close circle of family and friends, but that erroneously transformed into "Snoop" in high school and college.

So those aspiring for an insider's spot in Stewart's posse should go with "Snoot" instead of "Snoop."

Of course, Stewart isn't much of a posse guy. He's quiet and religious, a political science major who has always wanted to be a state patrolman. He fires himself up for games with contemporary Christian music.

If he did have a posse, it likely would be large, though, considering that the general consensus is he'll bypass his senior year for the NFL draft, and he figures to be a first-round pick.

Not that he's dwelling on that while the Ducks eyeball their first Pac-10 title since 2001.

"I'm not really a person who tries to speed things up," he said.

After all, patience has paid off for him, first with a prodigious growth spurt, then with his development as a ball carrier.

Perhaps a Heisman or, failing that, a national championship is next?

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.