Stewart Finds Comfort Level In WVU’s Spear
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–Because he has been so versatile, JoVanni Stewart has never really been afforded the luxury of settling into one position that really suited for him for an extended stretch of time.
A three-year starter at Texas prep power Katy High, which finished 16-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today in his senior season, Stewart was a hard-charging though undersized outside linebacker even in high school. Despite his 5-foot-8, 190-pound stature, he recorded 101 tackles, 10 sacks, eight forced fumbles, three blocked kicks and 10 pass deflections as a senior for the Tigers.
His size left him underrecruited despite his production at a talent factory like Katy. West Virginia was the only Power 5 program to offer him a scholarship, though the football programs at the academies – Army, Navy and Air Force – also were drawn to his combination of toughness, drive and intelligence.
He picked the Mountaineers and immediately set about proving he could play at the major college level.
Because his skills fit at so many positions, though, he never really had a permanent home with West Virginia.
As a true freshman, he quickly became a special teams standout, playing in 12 of WVU’s 13 games in 2016. He didn’t see a ton of game action with the defense, but worked out mainly at the spur position in practices. In 2017, with Kyzir White firmly planted at the spur, Stewart moved around to other safety spots, even starting a game at free safety. He saw action in all 13 games, and finished with 11 tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage. Of the 351 plays he participated in as a sophomore, 135 of them came with the defense and the rest were on special teams.
Last year as a junior, he settled into the spur safety position again, and began the season backing up Dravon Askew-Henry.
But necessity became the mother of invention.
Injuries during spring practice to linebackers Quondarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns left West Virginia thin at the position before the 2018 campaign even began. Then when starting sam linebacker Charlie Benton went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the opener against Tennessee, West Virginia’s veteran defensive coordinator Tony Gibson was forced to think outside the box.
He took a smallish safety and made him an incredibly small sam linebacker. Stewart started game two of the season at the sam, and usually giving up over 100 pounds to the offensive tackles gunning for him, he performed incredibly well rest of the way at that spot. He started the final 11 games of the 2018 at the sam.
He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 54 stops, and his 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks trailed only will linebacker David Long.
“I had nerves last year, because I didn’t know what it was like,” the sport and exercise psychology major admitted. “But I don’t feel the same way now.
“My feet have already gotten wet, and that helps a lot. I know what the competition is like, and I know what things are like.”
Stewart has spent this year getting used to a new coaching staff as well as a new position. His current role, though, seems to suit his size and skill set. He now is playing the spear in Vic Koenning’s defensive scheme, a spot that has a lot of similarities to the spur in WVU’s previous 3-3-5 odd stack.
“It’s way easier on my body,” Stewart said when asked the difference between playing linebacker and spear. “I just feel a whole lot more comfortable and am getting more opportunities around the ball. It’s a whole lot more competitive for me. Rather than running around a tackle, I get to guard a receiver.”
The coaching staff change from last year brought lots of differences, including to both scheme and technique. Stewart admits it took him a little while to adapt.
“I’m much more natural now,” he said. “In the spring there was a lot of thinking, and because of that I was playing slower. Now I just react.
“At first, it was hard, but it’s definitely coming along.”
As a linebacker, Stewart didn’t have a lot of pass coverage responsibilities. Now as a spear, he’s being asked to drop in space much more often.
“I’m definitely working on my coverage and feel like I’m getting better at it day by day,” he noted.
“Everything we do starts out looking the same, so you can’t really tell if we’re in man or zone.”
At the beginning of the season West Virginia’s defensive depth seemingly is better than it was last year, at least better than the end of 2018 when five different linebackers were lost because of injuries for most, if not all, the year.
No position group can probably suffer such a hit without it taking a significant toll, but at least at this point, the Mountaineers feel pretty good about their defensive numbers at most positions.
“We have pretty good depth this year for the most part,” noted Stewart. “We can rotate people more than we did last year.”
That depth extends to the spear position, where Stewart is the starter but he’s backed up by quality reserves like Kwantel Raines (6-2, 212 lbs., RFr.) and Dante Bonamico (5-8, 188 lbs., Jr.).
“I’m aggressive and use my technique to my advantage,” Stewart explained. “Kwantel is a bigger body and really talented. Dante is similar to me. I think we have a really good group.”
With so many new faces, especially within the coaching staff and on the offense as a whole, the expectations from those on the outside are much different for the Mountaineers this year than last.
That doesn’t mean those on the inside agree with them, though.
“I feel like we have to prove a lot,” Stewart stated. “People are doubting us. We are picked eighth in the Big 12 (in the preseason media poll), and I kind of find that disrespectful. I feel like we’re a whole lot better than that.”
Certainly as a senior, Stewart wants to greatly exceed those preseason rankings. In a career that has seemingly gone by in a blink in a blink, he wants to finish with a flourish.
“It’s kind of crazy; it’s gone so fast,” he said of his four years at WVU. “I can’t believe I’m a senior already, but I want to go out with my best season.”