At first, Walter Stewart was happy just to be on the field. He was a redshirt freshman playing college football in front of a sold-out Nippert Stadium crowd, his squad kept on winning on national TV and he was performing well enough to impress his coaches and teammates.
The new-car smell quickly faded for Stewart, though. It wasn't enough for him to simply be wearing the uniform and playing. He needed to be playing well and making a big-time impact for one of the top teams in the country.
Butch Jones said it aptly earlier this week when I asked about Stewart. He needs football, Jones said. Needs it to sustain him and keep him alive. But it's more than that for the defensive end/linebacker. He doesn't just need football. Actually, he needs to excel at football.
That's why following last Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, after saying goodbye to his parents, Stewart went back to work in the film room. You see, football isn't just a sport to Stewart. He needs football like he needs his liver.
"I've got to be around it," Stewart said.
As a result, the improvements speak for themselves. Stewart went from a rookie who barely felt he was ready to play to a guy who finished his freshman season with 59 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks to a person who will be one of the major cogs of the Bearcats defense this season.
"I'm really excited about the development he's made from day one to the next day to the following day," Jones said. "He's another individual who needs football in his life. He's very hungry, and he takes coaching. It's important to him. He wants to do well. He lives it every day. 'Coach, what do I need to do to get better? How can I take my game to the next level?' He's a sponge. He wants more. Anytime an individual has that, they're going to develop because of the expectations he's placed upon himself."
It's more than just Stewart's expectations, though. The coaching staff also has raised the scope of what he'll be asked to do. Much like Connor Barwin's role from two years ago, UC's coaches are transforming Stewart into a hybrid defender.
He'll rush the quarterback some. He'll probably drop back into coverage some. He'll play a combination of the defensive end and linebacker positions. With his athleticism and the resume he's produced so far, the move makes sense. What's interesting is how much the coaching staff must trust Stewart's physical and mental abilities - his on-field gifts and his football smarts - to make a move like this work out well for the Bearcats.
"I'm going to be everywhere," Stewart said. "I'm going to be on the line for third downs. Third downs and long, I'll be coming off the edge. Other than that, just be a linebacker. Depending on what offense is on the field, that determines what I'll be doing. It's a lot to take in for me. But that's the game. I have a new role on defense, and I accepted it.
"They definitely put a lot of trust in me. I take my responsibilities real seriously. I do what I'm coached to do."
Stewart, only a year removed from the uncertainty of playing as a freshman in a stadium full of people, seems poised to make a huge leap in responsibility. He's much different from the guy who was just happy to take the field.
"As the season went on, I realized that I belonged here," Stewart said. "Once I got rolling, I started to get more comfortable on the field and understanding what I needed to be doing out there. It was a good experience for me. This season, I feel a lot more prepared. Now, I know what to expect."