Film review: Cornerback MJ Stewart stands out for UNC secondary
UNC defensive tackle Nazair Jones (90), and cornerback MJ stewart (6) show their disappointment after the team blows a ten point lead in the second half and falls to Georgia 33-24 in Atlanta on Saturday.
This is our seventh installment of Film Review, our weekly series where we break down a particular aspect of the weekend's action to help you better understand what's happening on the field. Here's where to find our previous pieces.
The North Carolina football team won Saturday against Miami, and it won on the back of its defense.
Under Coach Larry Fedora, the offense has almost always been better than the defense, which has seldom won games for the team. More common have been the performances where the defense fails to give the offense a chance — like in losses to East Carolina and Clemson in 2014, or in losses to Clemson and Baylor a season ago.
But Saturday in Miami, the defense held the Hurricanes to 13 points and came up with a potentially season-defining sack, as Malik Carney forced a fumble which Jeremiah Clarke recovered to secure the victory.
There’s plenty of praise that will go around to the defensive line, especially to the heroes Clarke and Carney. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones also deserves a great deal of credit as the leader of that unit.
But this week, we want to hone in on another star of the Tar Heel defense who came up big Saturday and has throughout the season — junior cornerback M.J. Stewart.
Stewart came to Chapel Hill as a three-star recruit out of Arlington, Virginia, and was thrown right into the fire as a first-year. He played in all 12 games that season, finishing with 26 tackles and adding four pass breakups and two interceptions.
The first time we remember him popping up on tape was in North Carolina’s Thursday night showdown against Duke on Nov. 20, 2014.
Stewart is in man coverage on the near side of the field. Duke quarterback Anthony Boone drops back to pass and throws one up to wide receiver T.J. Rahming.
Stewart is in a tough spot here — in man coverage against a speedy wide receiver — but he finds a way to get his eyes back to the football.
This is a critical step to help him not only avoid getting a pass interference call, but also to make an interception.
This is something young defensive backs struggle with, as first-year Patrice Rene did in his first start against Georgia earlier this season. But Stewart, in his first season with UNC, made a critical interception that many veteran defensive backs can’t even make.
Following the 2014 season, the Tar Heel defense underwent some pivotal changes at the top. Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik joined the program and replaced the complex 4-2-5 scheme that the Tar Heels had been running with a simpler 4-3 system.
Chizik and his coaching staff also found new ways to utilize Stewart and weaponize his skill set in the most advantageous way.
When the Tar Heel defense goes into a nickel alignment, Stewart moves inside to cover one of the slot receivers — a role he’s excellent at. He’s active in run support when he plays nickel corner, and he matches up well against any speedster the offense throws his way.
Seldom does Stewart get beat on the outside or in the nickel, where his abilities to change directions and break hard on the ball shine.
His tackle for loss on Saturday against Miami is a great example of his instincts. On 2nd-and-10 at a critical juncture of Saturday’s game, Miami sets up to run a screen play for the running back.
Notice how as soon as the ball is snapped, Stewart is already sprinting towards the backfield. He's recognized the play by how the wide receivers are blocking and from the running back’s route.
When Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya releases the ball, Stewart has already beaten two blockers and is preparing for a big hit on the back.
Stewart finishes the tackle and drops the back for a huge loss, stalling the Hurricanes' drive.
Stewart puts himself in position to make these plays by relying on his instincts and his film study, and then finishes them with his athleticism and power for a defensive back.
He’s also great in pass coverage. More often than not, the defensive coaching staff asks North Carolina’s corners to play a press man coverage against the opposing receivers. This style of coverage requires cornerbacks to stay disciplined in their technique and be physical at the line of scrimmage — two things Stewart thrives at.
Also, by playing so close to the line of scrimmage, defensive backs playing press coverage are susceptible to getting beat over the top on vertical passing routes. As seen in the play against Duke, though, Stewart is quick enough to catch up to the receiver and sometimes makes a better play on the ball than the receiver does.
Stewart and the rest of the UNC defense have zero interceptions this season. After nabbing four interceptions a season ago, for Stewart to not have any thus far is equal parts disappointing and surprising for the Tar Heels.
However, defensive backs coach Charlton Warren has emphasized that his secondary has been in the right spots; the players just haven’t made the big plays needed to create turnovers.
Stewart already has a team-leading seven pass breakups after tying for the ACC lead with 18 last season. Pass breakups correlate closer to skill level than interceptions, which can sometimes be fluky. To suggest that Stewart or the defensive backs have regressed this season because they don’t have interceptions would be silly.
The North Carolina record for pass breakups in a career is 40, set by Robert Williams from 1995-97. Heading into the Virginia game this Saturday, Stewart has 25 — and he’s halfway through his junior season.
If Stewart keeps up this pace, he has a chance to go down as one of the great defensive backs in North Carolina football history, with a chance at an NFL career afterward.
For now, though, the Tar Heels will continue to count on Stewart to keep opposing quarterbacks under wraps on the back end of the defense.