MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – JoVanni Stewart is back to doing what he does best.
Last season, a wave of injuries forced Mountaineers defensive coaches to make the 5-foot-8 safety one of the nation’s most undersized linebackers.
He wasn’t overwhelmed by the move, finishing fourth on the team with 54 tackles and second with 10.5 tackles for loss. But that doesn’t mean Stewart necessarily enjoyed all of his job requirements, especially when it came to being blocked on the edge by 330-pound linemen.
“I’m cool with offensive tackles — it’s just that I wouldn’t want to say hi to them every play. We can talk every now and then,” Stewart said.
He should have fewer face-to-face interactions with offensive linemen in his new position, which defensive coordinator Vic Koenning calls the Spear. As a hybrid of safety and outside linebacker, coverage needs to be the first responsibility, but it requires more physicality than a prototypical nickelback.
“If you talk to high school coaches, a lot of them have a strong safety that they want you to recruit, so it gives you a position where you can play those kind of guys,” Koenning said.
With 12 starts and 37 career games under his belt, Stewart welcomes what is essentially a return to the secondary.
The other players repping at Spear are redshirt freshman Kwantel Raines and walk-on Dante Bonamico.
“There’s still pressure because it’s still my assignment,” Stewart said. “But where I am compared to where I was on the field, I feel like I have a lot more freedom because I’m in a lot more space.”
Stewart can also play more aggressively due to what is happening behind him. Koenning’s primary secondary look is a cover-4 or “quarters” defense, which is meant to form more of a security blanket against deep passing plays.
“There’s aggressors and protectors on our defense,” Stewart said. “I can tell you to shoot that gap and there will be someone behind you. That’s very comfortable.”
Stewart will usually be one of the aggressors. Turnovers are one of the primary things being emphasized by Koenning, starting with the way he’s teaching the Mountaineers how to tackle.
“How he wants us to tackle is different. Before it was a lot more just go and deliver the blow,” Stewart said. “Vic’s style is more a way to get the ball out. Make sure your head is on the ball. We do plenty of drills wrapping up our teammate and making sure our head is on the ball.”
Koenning’s Troy defense ranked third nationally with 31 takeaways last season.
“We emphasize turnovers,” Stewart said. “We do so much more turnover circuits and stuff like that.”