No Chips on the shoulder for Riccardo Stewart

Silencing critics can be one of the greatest motivators for an athlete. In the 2001 season the Sun Devils defenders have been vilified in every possibly way by virtually all ASU followers. Thus, nobody could blame Riccardo Stewart, one of the leaders on defense, having fun turning doubters into cheerleaders this year. However, the sophomore isn't into muting the naysayers. He rather enjoys seeing his teammates playing cohesively, and having fun in the process.

The safety, claims that he and his secondary teammates should stop being viewed in term of being inexperienced. "Secondary has played games." says the sophomore, "You hear everyone say how young we are, but our young players have played a lot of games. You have teams that have juniors that barely played…I don't read too much into that. All I know is that the secondary is 100 times better than it was last year."

Stewart who also has seven tackles for loss on the year, as well as a couple of sacks and pass deflections isn't a stranger to the starter role. In the 2001 season he was named the starter at the free safety position, which he had to relinquish after a few games to last season's leading tackler Jason Shivers. Being a starter this year does carry a much different meaning for the defensive back. "This season really hasn't been too much for me." Says the safety who had ten tackles against Stanford last Saturday. "It's more fun because we were winning, and I'm playing a lot more. This season is also different because I know more about the defense, and I'm putting myself in positions to make plays here and there. It's just my mindset both in games and practice that I have to do my job. I know they guy next to me is gonna do his job, and we can't let each other down. That's how we're gonna win games."

The safety who's listed at 5-10 195, which is somewhat small compared to the average stature of his position, hasn't let his physique interfere with his knack for bone crushing hits. "I don't know if I have the most ice packs after a game (smile), but I do like to hit. Everybody says I'm the smallest guy in the secondary, but I'm just gonna fly out there, hit some people, and make some plays. It's fun to get the crowd to go wooooo after I had a big hit (smile)." Does he take pleasure in defying those who didn't believe he could ever be a successful defensive back? "The people that say I'm small, and said I would never play safety - I'm not into proving them wrong or stuff like that. I really don't care. If you know what you're gonna do, you're just go out there and do it for yourself and do it to help the team. But I do want to prove wrong the people that picked the team to finish ninth in the Pac-10."

While the Pac-10 season is in its infancy, it does look like ASU may not live down to the lowly pre-season expectation put on them by the Pac-10 media. It's not only the pure Football play that is about to shatter that grim prediction, but according to Stewart it's also the team's character. "We're just playing as a team, and having fun out there. You can't get better than that. That's what the coaches preach to us, is to go out there and have fun...we never have that quitting attitude, it's always a winning attitude. When we got scored on last year, guys just say here we go again. This year's we're just like, OK it's time to get ours. There's never a doubt. You can't ask for anything else."

The Sun Devil defenders have 18 takeaways in five games, which is another glaring and positive difference than last year. How does Stewart explain this turnaround? "Guys are just flying around, and it's just happening. The guys are just hitting a lot better, and the ball is just moving to our side (smile). Defense is pretty fast, and the offense is just making plays."

As great as the 65-24 win over Stanford was, don't expect Stewart and his teammates to rest on their laurels. The game against the Tar Heels this week has their full attention and focus. Watching game film on the visitors from Chapel Hill has shown the safety that this home game will be anything but a cakewalk. "North Carolina is so talented. They play teams like Georgia Tech and Florida State year in and year out. They have athletes on their team." And a win over such a formidable team can only further enhance the enjoyable and effective play that the Sun Devils has been exhibiting in the 2002 campaign.

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