Stewart finds his place in the sun

Defensive role different than planned, free safety liking big-play challenge

Orange Bowl

MARYLAND vs. FLORIDA

January 01, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - Maryland free safety Ty Stewart has taken longer than he expected to find sunny days on the football field.

But not only has the team's Orange Bowl trip come later than anticipated for the junior from Washington, D.C., but his role has been different than he thought. Instead of starting and being among the first mentioned in connection with the Terps' defense, Stewart is a player whose big plays come on long-yardage situations and special teams.

"When I first got here, I wanted to play a big role because they came off a losing season and my whole reason for coming was to help turn a program around and have my whole family get the chance to see me play," Stewart said. "The way it's working out - with the new coaching staff - if I have to do it on defense, I have to do it on special teams, too."

He'll have to do it well on special teams in tomorrow night's Orange Bowl. Though Florida isn't the greatest return team on earth - averaging less than 20 yards on kick returns and less than 10 on punts - its speed is a major concern for the Terps, who have allowed two returns for touchdowns this season.

Stewart's job is to make sure it doesn't happen again, focusing on Gators returner Lito Sheppard.

"We're trying to get our best people on the coverage teams," said special teams coach Ray Rychleski. "We use safeties, corners and fast linebackers that can make these plays in the open field. That is definitely one of Ty Stewart's strengths."

Though Stewart had hoped for prominence after being a three-time all-league pick at Anacostia High School, he didn't find much playing time in his first three years at Maryland.

After redshirting his freshman season, the next two years produced only four tackles. But when the new coaching staff entered last winter, Stewart knew that he might take on a larger role.

"I knew one thing off the bat - he's very football smart, and that caught my attention," Rychleski said. "He's not the biggest, and not the fastest, but all he does is make plays. He's the type you love to have - he's tough enough, he's not afraid to put his nose in there, and he's smart."

With new defensive coordinator Gary Blackney instituting a more aggressive scheme that emphasized confusing the quarterback, Stewart fell into a role as someone expected to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Stewart set the tone for himself by tackling North Carolina's Willie Parker in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter of the team's season opener.

That play happened on third down, where Stewart normally enters the stage. Since then, his role as a nickel back has been diversified, if for no other reason than to avoid letting opponents see a trend. He's had four tackles for losses, but he's also had 19 other tackles.

Still, he would like to get after Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, or whoever the Gators have in the game.

"Once the time came for me to be able to make plays, I was able to do it and now I look forward to third-and-long," Stewart said. "I'm looking forward to this game, because they pass so much. I'll be in there a whole lot. I'm looking forward to it, ready to take on that challenge."

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