Two of the SEC’s best defenses and Heisman candidate Derrick Henry shared the field at the Georgia Dome in the conference’s championship game, but it was a trio of young receivers who stole the spotlight Saturday night.
Florida’s Antonio Callaway and Alabama teammates Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart left an impression thanks to highlight reel plays worthy of mention on Sportscenter’s Top 10.
Callaway was out of the gate first with a record-setting 85-yard punt return in the second quarter.
The true freshman made a solid 46-yard catch from Treon Harris in the first quarter, but it was his dynamic return that gave the crowd in Atlanta something to get excited about.
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After the game, Callaway explained whey he didn’t even think about signaling for a fair catch as JK Scott’s punt backed him up to his own 15-yard line.
“I watched film on their punt team and No. 7 (Tony Brown) always been a problem,” Callaway said. “Every return he’s in the returners in the face. When I seen the kicker kick the ball and I seen Brian Poole blocking him across the field I knew we had a play. I couldn’t let it go over my head.”
Alabama’s defense didn’t manage to even get a hand on Callaway on the receiver’s way to breaking the SEC Championship game record of 83 yards set in 1998 set by
Mississippi State’s Kevin Prentiss.
Callaway came into the game as Florida’s leading receiver with 29 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns. He was also the sixth leading punt returner in the country with an average return of 14 yards.
“He’s a great player,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “I’ll tell you what, I’m so happy that he’s here.”
Callaway has already received a fair share of praise for his play this season, but more accolades aren’t going to change his approach as Florida looks ahead to its bowl game.
“I don’t let the hype get to me,” Callaway said.
Alabama wide receiver ArDarius Stewart didn’t know the level of difficulty of his third quarter touchdown catch until he saw the replay on the video screen.
The sophomore had to readjust while quarterback Jake Coker’s throw was in midair to make a leaping 32-yard grab between a pair of Florida defenders.
Stewart was so focused on making the play he didn’t even know it was a contested ball.
“It was locked in from when the ball left his hand,” Stewart said. “It got in the air and closer to me, I was just locked in. I didn’t know there was a defensive back right there until they gave the replay on the big screen.”
The first indication he did something special was when one of his offensive lineman came to pick up him screaming in excitement.
“ArDarius is a guy that's really had to learn how to pay attention to detail, do the little things right and do it on a consistent basis,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He has done that extremely well and I think that's the difference in his performance. He's always been a talented guy and he's made some great plays for us this year.”
Freshman teammate Calvin Ridley made a similarly contested catch in the second quarter to set up Alabama’s first touchdown. Ridley also finished the game as the Tide’s leading receiver with eight catches for 102 yards.
His 55-yard reception at midfield might not have been as spectacular as Stewart’s, but he was smothered on the play by Florida’s top defensive back Vernon Hargreave and still managed to hold on to the ball.
Saban called Ridley a “fantastic addition” to this year’s Alabama team.
“Calvin got an opportunity when Robert Foster got injured in the Ole Miss game and took great advantage of it,” Saban said.
Ridley led the team in receiving with 791 yards and five touchdowns on 67 catches. Stewart was second on the team with 50 receptions for 536 yards and three touchdowns to end the regular season.