Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

UNC's M.J. Stewart Prepping Early for NFL Opportunity

The senior cornerback has 33 career pass breakups.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – M.J. Stewart will watch from a distance as his former teammates are measured, tested and drilled at North Carolina’s pro day on Tuesday. That the Tar Heel cornerback would be participating at Navy Fields was a legitimate option three months ago, considering his childhood dream was well within reach.

Stewart, a two-time All-ACC standout, recently told reporters he was “really close” to entering the NFL Draft a year early. With only two classes remaining for his degree, however, the Arlington, Va. product decided to embrace the opportunity of one final year of seasoning.

The simpler route may have been to put his name in the draft, impress scouts at the NFL Combine alongside former teammates such as Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Switzer and Naz Jones, and then get picked up in the latter rounds in late April. That’s not Stewart’s standard operating procedure, though. He’s never been one to take the easy route.

“He’s consistently been the hardest worker on this football team since he’s gotten here,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “So you give him any type of challenge on what he needs to work on, and he’s going to master it. He’ll work on the smallest details. That’s what I admire about him is the amount of time and the effort that he really puts in because he doesn’t just say he wants to be a great player, he truly does what it takes to be a great player.”

Whether its extra hours in the weight room or the film room, Stewart’s not satisfied with his current physique or football IQ. There’s always room for growth, which he’s known from an early age.

“I just know where I want to get to,” Stewart said. “I’ve had a dream since I was little to make it to the league and I think it’s my determination and my work ethic that sets me apart from other people. I’m 21 now. I’ve been doing this for almost all of my life, so there’s no need to change now because I’m so close to getting to that next level.

“And then when I get to that next level, I’ve got to work even harder because I’ll go from being a good-to-great college player to being at the bottom of the pond in the NFL. So I’ve got to work my butt off even more to get back up to the top.”

The 6-foot, 200-pound senior has officially broken up 33 passes in his college career, tying for the ACC lead with 18 in 2015. Stewart finished with 66 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes broken up, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles last season. His versatility highlights his draft board appeal more than his statistics, as his physical stature makes him a quality inside presence at nickel while his speed and hips serve as strengths on the edge.

Working under a new defensive coordinator in John Papuchis, Stewart says the changes will be minimal, describing the 2017 defense as the “same scheme with a few wrinkles.” He’s also working with a new defensive backs coach in Terry Joseph, who joined Fedora’s staff after Charlton Warren made a lateral move to Tennessee.

“He’s introduced some things that I haven’t necessarily seen as a DB,” Stewart said. “He just allows us to play our style and then whatever style we play, he wants us to perfect it.”

Stewart’s point of emphasis this offseason has been improving his technique while also learning more minutiae to allow him to cheat on more plays in order to make more plays. He also took notes while watching his former teammates at the NFL Combine and will undoubtedly do the same when NFL scouts and personnel arrive by the dozens on Tuesday.

After all, those occasions offer more data mining, as well as more unique drills and technique tips to add to his offseason workload so that when his time finally comes, he’ll be ready.

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