Stewart runs with opportunity
Entering the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, the secondary, especially the safety position, was considered a question mark for the Gamecock defense. Following the disappointing showing against the Ragin' Cajuns, the question got even louder. Two short weeks later, however, the safety position has become a strength.
The starting safeties for the opener were Brandon Isaac and Stoney Woodson. Isaac was coming of a redshirt season, and expected to be the leader of the defensive backfield. He has lived up to his promise so far, and provided a playmaking presence that Carolina lacked after Ko Simpson left for the NFL. Next to him, Woodson moved over from cornerback when Emanuel Cook was out with appendicitis. Woodson is solid in coverage, but not a playmaker, especially against the run.
With Isaac and Woodson in the backfield, Louisiana-Lafayette rolled up 252 yards on the ground. Facing Georgia, the coaches knew that a better effort was needed. In stepped sophomore Darian Stewart, who played in 12 games as a freshman last year, almost all on special teams. He was sometimes overlooked during fall practice as most of the focus was on Isaac, Cook, and freshman standout Mark Barnes, who later moved to wide receiver, but Stewart made the most of his opportunity against Georgia. Combined with Cook's return, the question is no longer who will play safety for the Gamecocks, but how will coaches get everyone on the field.
"I think there's enough room [for all of us]," said Stewart. "Once we get tired [the coaches are] just rotating us in. We'll be alright. All four of us can play, so anyone can do the job."
Stewart has a reputation as a sure tackler, although he did not always show it last year. He made just 7 stops over the entire year.
"Last year I had a rough start. I wasn't really a good tackler," he explained. "This year I became a better tackler because I started focusing better. In high school, those guys were smaller than they are up here. I wasn't wrapping up like I am now."
As a result, Stewart led the Gamecocks with 9 tackles against Georgia, including a few crucial, touchdown-saving tackles. His play was so impressive in place of Cook at strong safety that the USC coaches have decided to keep him in the lineup when Cook returns. This weekend against run-oriented S.C. State, Cook will return to strong safety, and Stewart will start at free safety, while Isaac slides over to cornerback
"Darian Stewart is one of my better players," said defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, "and we're going to give him a chance to get on the field. We're going to find out who plays the best at what position and give them a chance to be successful."
Stewart was asked about his favorite play from the Georgia game, and he immediately identified his tackle on a screen pass while being blocked by two Bulldogs as his favorite play.
"I was in man coverage, and I saw him do a one yard hitch and come back to the ball," Stewart explained. "I just reacted pretty fast [and tried] to get to the ball before he got to me."
With young playmakers like Stewart in the defensive backfield, USC's secondary looks to be in good hands for years to come.
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