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The emergence of Walter Stewart

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Walter Stewart figured he wouldn't play very much this season. Not with Curtis Young and Craig Carey and Demetrius Jones ahead of him on the depth chart at outside linebacker. Not with the lack of experience he had. Not with the fact he redshirted last season and had taken a handful of snaps in the season-opening Rutgers game.

 

But there he was - on the field as the starter at Oregon State with the crowd and the noise and the excitement. And during the 28-18 victory in Corvallis, Stewart played well, recording 2.5 sacks and forcing a fumble.

 

He hasn't stopped producing since. Even when Young, who was replaced by Stewart after suffering an injury, returned to health, the Bearcats coaches can't keep Stewart off the field.

 

He's a redshirt freshman with almost no experience and who, until the Louisville game, still wasn't 100 percent comfortable on the field. Stewart has been a beast anyway, and for a guy not expecting to play much this season, Stewart certainly has turned some heads.

 

"A guy flying around at a million miles an hour," Brian Kelly said when asked what he expected out of Stewart this season. "We were worried about whether he would break down or not, because he's a little leaner than we would like. But he's such an astute kid. He knows the game. He has that kinesthetic awareness of the game that you just can't teach. From a coaching standpoint, this is how you get motivated. That's what gets you fired up as a coach."

 

On the season, Stewart has accumulated 31 tackles, four sacks and the interception he plucked out of the air last week vs. the Cardinals. It's more than he could have imagined.

 

"I expected to be the backup for Curtis - more of a role player," Stewart said. "If he got tired in certain situations, I'd go in for certain packages. (After Young's injury), I started getting all the reps, so you want to bite down at practice and make sure you know what you're doing."

 

He didn't have much confidence, though. His mindset basically was this: if he couldn't make the big tackle, at least know the defense well enough to make sure the opposing offense couldn't ring up a big yardage play because of his inadequacy.

 

Kelly, though, sees Stewart a bit differently than the linebacker sees himself.

 

"Walter is just an impressive young man," Kelly said. "We bring this up all the time, but he is purposeful in what he does, what he says. Everything he does on a day to day basis has purpose to it. That's how a freshman like this can go out there. Wait until you see this young man in a year or two when he's 230-240 pounds."

 

When Stewart arrived at UC, he weighed 185 pounds, but since then, he said he's gained about 30 pounds.

 

"He's lying," Kelly said. "He must have had a couple jackets on when he said that."

 

There's little doubt, though, that Kelly has helped Stewart indirectly. In high school, Stewart was a linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme, but when he arrived at UC under defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, he was moved to defensive end. Undersized? Just a bit.

 

Yet, now that Bob Diaco has installed the 3-4 defense for the Bearcats, Stewart has returned to outside linebacker. Mostly, he's played the Cat position (the OLB who rushes the quarterback), but lately, he's spent more time at the Drop spot (which means he has to drop into pass coverage) with the absence of the injured Demetrius Jones.

 

But slowly, he's getting more comfortable. He no longer lacks for confidence, no longer feels like a helpless freshman. Now, he's becoming one of the top defensive players on the team.

 

"It was just to experience it, knowing I could play football at the D-1 level," Stewart said. "I felt a little bit overwhelmed at first, because we were at Oregon State and it was a little bit crazy. When I settled down, I thought, 'I can do this. I'm here to play.'"

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