MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It took going on four years, but JoVanni Stewart finally has the perfect position to play for his size and skills.
Stewart is a spear in Vic Koenning’s defense – essentially, a nickelback that occasionally needs to do the dirty work of a linebacker inside the box.
It’s a much better fit than outside linebacker, which the 5-foot-8 Stewart was forced to play last season when a rash of injuries necessitated a move from safety. Though he finished fourth on the team with 54 tackles, he was in no hurry to return to linebacker.
“It’s amazing. It’s way easier on my body,” Stewart said of the position change. “I just feel more comfortable and get a whole lot more opportunities around the ball. It’s a whole lot more competitive for me instead of just running around to tackle. I get to guard a receiver.”
Stewart has not been able to show off his coverage skills very often. He was a free safety his first two seasons at West Virginia, but primarily contributed on special teams.
“[My coverage skills] are good,” Stewart said before quickly realizing he was selling himself short. “They’re great. I’ve definitely been working on them and I’ve been getting better every day. Man, zone, we mix it a lot.”
Confusion will be crucial with the Mountaineers breaking in several young players in the secondary. After all, it’s tougher to pick on an inexperienced defensive back if he isn’t where you expect him to be.
“Everything we do almost looks the same pre-snap,” Stewart said. “You can’t really tell if we’re man or zone. I haven’t been in a defense like that. At first it was hard [to learn]. But things are definitely coming along now.”
Stewart is not the only spear who will play. Freshman Kwantel Raines, who is 6-2 and 212 pounds, adds quite a bit more bulk to the position and figures to play in obvious run situations.
Junior Dante Bonamico recently moved to the position from free safety after swapping spots with freshman Tykee Smith.
“Dante will make some plays,” Stewart said. “But he’s also good at assignments. He’s another position coach on the field. I consider him a leader.”
Stewart is also high on Smith’s stock even though they only played the same position for a couple weeks.
“He’s a good, young football player,” Stewart said. “He just has to get the playbook down. But he’s already comfortable. He’s a competitor. Hopefully he’ll make some plays this year as a freshman.”