Wyoming’s Top-Ranked Punter Isn’t a One-Trick Pony
LARAMIE -- Jer'Marius Lewis had just one man standing between him and the end zone.
If he scores, New Mexico retakes the lead late in the third quarter. If he doesn't, the Lobos are still in good shape, but the ridicule from his teammates in film study is likely to be relentless
That man was Wyoming's punter. Little did Lewis or his buddies know, though, Clayton Stewart's nickname is the "Bone Crusher."
New Mexico's return man soon found out why, being unceremoniously dumped at the Cowboys' 12-yard line. Stewart saved the touchdown. When the dust settled last Saturday night in Albuquerque, that was one of the key plays of the game. The home team would eventually settle for a field-goal attempt.
Wyoming's Gavin Meyer got a mitt on the 22-yard try, batting it away and preserving the three-point advantage. The Cowboys would roll to a 27-14 victory.
Less than 48 hours later, Stewart's violent takedown was still the topic of conversation amongst Cowboys players and coaches.
"So you know, I coach the punters," Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl joked. "I have to say, I haven't spent a great deal of time working on tackling drills with him, but I thought he did a great job there."
Ryan Marquez, who has been one of the team's top special teams performers this fall, said Stewart should never be in that situation in the first place, but if coverage does break down, he added, having a 6-foot-1, 220-pound punter is a luxury.
"It does feel good that there's a guy back there that is going to be able to make that tackle," the junior receiver said. "I wouldn't want to get tackled by that guy. He's a big dude."
Stewart has a calm, laid-back demeanor, flashing a shy grin and an eye roll when asked about his alter ego. That guy showed himself on the practice fields last fall during a live drill.
The Flower Mound, Texas, product followed his own punt and clogged up a lane of his own, dropping the ball carrier -- with force -- once again.
"I don't think coach Bohl was too happy about it," Stewart laughed. "He's like 'always stay away, stay away, stay away. Stay away from all of it.' That's why Bone Crusher came around."
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Stewart can lay the wood, but he's also excelling at the job that earned him a scholarship in the first place. The former Texas State transfer is currently the top-ranked punter in the Mountain West Conference -- No. 11 in the nation -- averaging 45.8 yards per kick. Stewart has perfectly placed 11 of those inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Fifteen have traveled more than 50 yards, including a season long 67 yarder against San Jose State.
Inside New Mexico's University Stadium, Stewart punted eight times. Four of those pinned the Lobos deep in their own territory. Arguably, it should have been five. Officials said a 49-yard corner kick in the second quarter was a touchback.
"The other one was ruled in the end zone," Bohl said. "Look, you guys can make your judgment on that."
"It is what it is," Stewart said with a shrug. "It's part of the game."
Told you he's chill.
He saved his best boot of the night for just the right time anyway. With 2:57 left in regulation and the visitors clinging to a 20-14 lead, Stewart lofted a 36-yarder toward the Lobos' goal line. Marquez timed it just right, hauling the floater in on the fly and neatly dumping it behind him where it was downed inside the 1-yard line.
If New Mexico wanted to get back in that one, it had 99 yards to go. That didn't happen. Instead, quarterback Miles Kendrick heaved an out route that was undercut by Cam Stone, who returned the interception 38 yards for the score.
If you ever see Stewart's mouth moving on the approach, don't be alarmed. He's not insane, he's talking himself through his approach. First comes the finger licks. Then, the practice swing. He tells himself to "walk." He begs the ball to "sit."
Typically, it works.
There is an exception, however. Stewart's debut in a Cowboys' uniform was a forgettable one.
His average that day in Champaign, a season-low 38.3. The first attempt traveled just 21 yards. Another, just 22. He got eight opportunities. Only one went for more than 50 yards. Zero landed inside the Illini 20.
Stewart won the job over incumbent Ralph Fawaz in the offseason. He had to be looking over his shoulder after that performance, right?
The final two kicks of the day and a handshake calmed his fears.
"It's not an excuse, but I was nervous as I'll get out," he said, adding that he hadn't punted in a game since he was in San Marcos back in 2018. "... At the end of the game, coach Bohl came up and said, 'That's the Clayton we know. Welcome back.'
"That gave me a big boost of confidence."
Stewart also credits his fiancé, Brittany, with bringing a calming presence to his life. She moved from Houston to Laramie. There's just something different about talking in person, Stewart said with a smile.
There isn't much time for reflection these days, but Stewart said he does allow himself to reminisce about his journey every now and then.
"I had a lot of people look me in the face and say 'no' for a lot of seasons in a row," he said. "I think the biggest thing is I don't find my identity in what happens at football, I find my identity in Christ and who he says I am. So that's helped me throughout the whole time."
This fall, Stewart heard "yes."
Well, kind of.
"Yeah, kind of. He's a little cryptic sometimes," Stewart joked when talking about the day he found from Bohl he would be the starter. "He just said there is a switch up in the depth chart one day at practice. It just stayed that way. I never got any confirmation after that, but I was just like, 'I have a shot.'"
It's an opportunity, but more importantly, it's validation.
"I put a lot of self-doubt on myself," he continued. "Like when Brittany moved across the country and my parents took a big risk on me moving across the country. Everyone at one-on-one kicking, who took a chance on me. They trained me up while I was in the (transfer) portal. All of these people put so much work into me and it's not paying off. I felt so guilty about it. But at the same time, I was like, I can't let them down.
"I'm going to make them proud."
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