Antwan shows big-play knack

About an hour into last Saturday's Tennessee football scrimmage, senior safety Antwan Stewart intercepted a pass over the middle thrown by Jonathan Crompton. Five plays later, Stewart outbattled 6-foot-5 Casey Woods to pick off a fade route from Erik Ainge.

Two interceptions constitute a pretty good season for a Vol defensive back in recent years; two in one scrimmage is almost unimaginable. But Stewart just might be on the verge of fulfilling the promise he exhibited as a redshirt freshman three years ago.

Proving to be Tennessee's best pass defender in the spring of 2003, he opened the season as the starting right cornerback. Then two unforeseen forces changed the course of his career. First, he was overtaken by rugged Jason Allen, who took away his starting job at midseason. Then he was overwhelmed by an ACL tear in the spring of 2004 that took away his entire sophomore season.

Despite a year's layoff and a position switch, Stewart bounced back in 2005 to win a first-team job at strong safety. He started all 11 games and played OK but recorded just three pass breakups and zero interceptions.

Now that he's had a full year to build trust in his ACL and in his safety skills, Stewart seems more comfortable than last fall. The two interceptions in Saturday's scrimmage underscore that idea.

"It was just being in the right place at the right time," he said. "It's just recognizing the scheme the coaches called, then being there."

Stewart says he knew what to do in 2005; he simply couldn't translate that knowledge into big plays.

"It's just a matter of going out there and doing it," he said. "The staff has been coaching me since I first set foot on campus, so I just have to take it and put it into action."

As one of UT's most experienced defensive players, Antwan Stewart is being counted on heavily for 2006. That's why the coaches played him at both safety and cornerback in Saturday's scrimmage.

"I played corner about the same amount as safety," he said. "I don't mind playing both … just so I'm on the field. As long as they tell me to go out, I'll keep going out there, no matter where they tell me to go. Knowing the assignments at both positions isn't really a problem. It all relates together."

The departure of Allen leaves Stewart as the old man of UT's secondary. Still, he considers himself no more of a team leader than the other veteran defensive backs.

"I look it as (Jonathan) Wade, (Jonathan) Hefney, Roshaun Fellows and Jarod Parrish – all of us – working together," he said. "Nobody's going to step out. We're all going to try to lead together."

After surrendering 371 passing yards and five passing touchdowns in spring scrimmage No. 1, Vol defensive backs allowed just 281 passing yards and zero passing TDs in scrimmage No. 2. Is that indicative of the progress they've made?

"It all works together," Stewart said. "The front did a better job (rushing the passer), so that obviously put us at an advantage. If we keep taking coaching and growing together, we'll all be fine."

Tennessee's secondary seems to be playing more physically and more aggressively this spring. The coverage is tighter and the hits are bigger. Could that be why Vol receivers dropped so many balls in Saturday's scrimmage?

Stewart grinned at the question, then answered: "Who knows?"

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