5-foot-8 linebacker becomes West Virginia’s biggest secret

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson was mum all week about his plans for coping with the absence of outside linebacker Charlie Benton.

Benton was ruled out for the season after injuring his knee against Tennessee, which hurt depth at a position that was already thin as tissue paper.

Gibson went with a four-man front on five plays against the Vols and used Morgantown High alum Shea Campbell for the rest of the snaps, which figured to be the plan against Youngstown State.

“I just got to the point where I didn’t want to say anything to anybody,” Gibson said. “We wanted them to have to find JoVanni.”

With a week of game prep, Gibson decided to slide safety JoVanni Stewart down to Sam linebacker. As coach Dana Holgorsen said, “It was just about getting the best 11 out there.”

Stewart has played Bandit and Spur safety in the past at WVU but he hasn’t been a linebacker since Katy High. His playing time Saturday came at the expense of Campbell and redshirt freshman Exree Loe, though Gibson emphasized Campbell knew this wasn’t a punishment.

“By no means am I giving up on Shea, but this was a good time to get JoVanni some reps, and I told Shea that after the game,” Gibson said. “We’re going to need both of those guys going forward to be able to get what we need out of that position. But a lot of the game plan tonight was made for JoVanni and it was just to get him some good reps.”

At 5-foot-8 and 191 pounds, Stewart hardly fits the linebacker prototype.

“We didn’t want David Long to be the shortest linebacker in the country anymore,” Holgorsen joked. “JoVanni makes David feel like he’s much bigger than he actually is.”

Stewart finished with two tackles, one for a loss.

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