When the North Carolina football team took on conference opponents Wake Forest and Virginia, the sophomore stood on the UNC sideline without a helmet, shoulder pads or cleats, the repercussions that followed a charge for misdemeanor assault and battery and an indefinite suspension.
“Watching all the boys playing out there, I’ll support them, but in my heart I was like, ‘I knew I should be out there too,’” Stewart said.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound cornerback from Arlington, Va. got the chance to play with his team again on Oct. 29 as the Tar Heels took on the then-No. 23 Pittsburgh Panthers. It was Stewart’s chance for redemption, and when the lights turned on at Heinz Field, it was as if he never left.
In his first game back from suspension, the cornerback compiled six tackles, one sack and three pass breakups while matched up against arguably the best receiver in the country in Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd for most of the night.
It was the performance Stewart and the Tar Heels needed, and if you ask his coaches, it was the one he has continued to build toward.
“He’s one of those guys that comes out here — every day you come out here to work, he’s working,” said North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. “If you watch him on special teams, he’s working. He never takes any down off.”
According to Chizik, what allows Stewart to perform at a high level on Saturdays is his work ethic in practice. Chizik even shows the rest of the defense practice film of the cornerback as an example of great effort and preparation.
“A lot of people think you can just do it on Saturday ... It doesn’t happen that way,” Chizik said. “You are what you repeatedly do. Well, he repeatedly makes plays in practice, which puts him in a position to make plays in a game.”
When Stewart lined up across from Boyd, it was the preparation that allowed him to make big plays in key situations. In a game in which the North Carolina secondary played a major role, Stewart was at the heart of the unit, making an impact more often than not when given the opportunity.
“You see him productive making tackles in the open field. You see him productive as a blitzer getting a sack. You see him productive on split reductions and passing off routes and making pass breakups,” said defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. “You don’t want to look at a guy that’s played 60 plays and he has no production. I want teams to feel his presence. We want to feel his presence as a defense.”
And as the season progresses, North Carolina hopes its opponents can only sit and watch as Stewart leads the charge from the Tar Heels’ secondary.