MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Two years into his West Virginia career, safety Jovanni Stewart hasn’t forgotten the sting of letdowns that led him here.
Being a high-impact player on one of the stingiest high school defenses in America earned him some looks.
Just not many second looks.
“A lot of schools would talk to me and they’d say, ‘We love your film,’” Stewart said. But when recruiters showed up to survey the talent in Katy, Texas, first-hand, “they would see that I’m 5-9 and they’d kind of wander off.”
Never mind that Stewart scored five defensive touchdowns for a state championship team that finished 16-0 his senior year. Power Five programs saw a kid who made 101 tackles, 10 sacks, jarred loose eight fumbles, recovered four, blocked three kicks and broke up 10 passes. They just didn’t see a kid sizable enough to translate at the next level.
“My coach would tell me a school wanted to come see me and I would get annoyed, because I already knew how this was going to go,” Stewart said.
Then a visit from West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson showed Stewart something new.
“Coach Gibson was straight-up and made me feel like he wanted me here,” Stewart said. “He said, ‘I’m going to be real with you’ and my ears opened. Everything he has told me he’s going to do with his players, that’s what he does. It’s not iffy or sketchy stuff — he might be one of the realest men I know.”
Gibson’s reassurance received an assist from another ex-Katy player, receiver Jordan “Squirt” Thompson, who was wrapping up a four-year stint at West Virginia. (“Squirt DM’d me like, ‘Guess what, bro — the coaches sound like they’re interested,’” Stewart recalled. “I trusted he would bring me to a place that I would love.”)
During late January 2016, in the runup to national signing day, Stewart committed to WVU, his only Power Five offer.
Since then he has appeared in 25 of the Mountaineers’ 26 games, playing extensively on special teams yet also making one start at free safety during 2017. He’s once again a backup to Toyous Avery at Bandit safety and a capable fill-in elsewhere in the secondary. And he’s still 5-foot-9.
“I think he’s probably been told his whole life he’s too small,” Gibson said. “But what’s most important is that when the light comes on, you make plays.”
The coordinator understands why choosier, elite programs rule out undersized players, though sometimes they miss out on capable kids.
“They put a parameter on positions. They say you’ve got to be 6-2 to do this or do that,” Gibson said. “We don’t have that luxury, If they can play football, they can play. That’s how we look at it.”
After playing 135 defensive snaps as a sophomore, Stewart feels better positioned to gain more playing time this fall — whether it’s joining the third-down packages or stepping in when injuries inevitably strike. He recognizes the importance of preparation, so he’s seeing situations develop and making quicker reactions in practice.
“I believed I was bought-in before but I really wasn’t,” Stewart admitted. “I always believed I did enough, I guess. I would come in, do a workout, and I’d work hard, but when it was over I’d think, ‘OK, that’s done.’ I wouldn’t necessarily go watch film.
“I didn’t watch nearly as much film as I do now. Once I started doing the little things right, I’m noticing a big difference.”