Cornerback M.J. Stewart has been impressing through the first few days of training camp. He's been making the most of his opportunities and worked his way up already to the first-team slot corner in the Bucs' nickel package, with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves missing a couple practices with a leg laceration. He's had a couple of great pass breakups whether it be with the first team at nickel or second-team outside corner as well.
His early success comes as no surprise to his former position coach at the University of North Carolina, Charlton Warren. Coach Warren, now with the University of Florida, had some great insight into just what the Buccaneers are getting with the first-year player.
"Being with him, the one thing you realize about M.J. is that he is a tireless worker," Warren said. "In the offseason no one could match his competitive nature and work ethic to get better. He's a very driven, competitive guy. In practice, in workouts, he was the guy that you'd have to cut off. There would be several times in practice, we used those GPS systems, let's say it was supposed to be a 'green' day, halfway through practice he's already in the red."
His unwillingness to come off the field may have something to do with the fact that Stewart is an extremely versatile player. He's been plugged in at multiple positions for the Buccaneers at nickel, outside corner as well as special teams contributor and that doesn't seem to be anything new.
"He is a very physical player," Warren said. "He can blitz, he can affect the run game. He understands the run game. He understands if you tell him, 'hey go cross the three-technique,' he knows about his depth. He ain't going to be perfect, but he's going to work at it. He approached the college game like a pro. He did. So I think his niche in the NFL will be his versatility and his durability. He didn't miss a game for three years. He played every snap."
"As a position coach, I felt comfortable that if he has to go in at free safety because this guy gets hurt, I'm comfortable. If he has to go to dime, nickel, I think that's going to serve him well at [the NFL] level."
His versatility is complemented by the fact that Stewart is 'a true student of the game' as Warren put it. He can play different positions because he understands each different position and how they collectively contribute to the overall defensive scheme.
"Based on the defensive call, he knew when he could gamble, when he had to play it safe," Warren said. "He knew where his help was and it allowed him to play very aggressive. He just has a great anticipation of the game. I really admire that about him and how much he put not only into the speed and conditioning, but just the mental side of the game to learn what could make him a better player and faster player on the field beyond just speed and strength."
As far as off the field, Warren holds Stewart in high regards there, too. He told me that Stewart has always been super competitive and wants to be good at a lot of things because of it. That rang true during the offseason when the rookies participated in the Bucs' Rookie Academy. A couple of the events, like bowling with the Tampa Fire Rescue and a visit to the Tampa Culinary Arts School had competition aspects to them. Stewart won both. Coach Warren laughed when I told him so and said that sounded about right, adding that Stewart is just a good guy all-round.
"I always told M.J. he has a tremendous perspective on life," Warren said. "I think his biggest attribute is he has perspective. He knows how to have fun. He knows how to handle his business. He knows how to work harder than anyone else in the room. That makes him a very well-rounded human being, which makes him a very well-rounded football player."
View photos of the Buccaneers rookie class reporting to Training Camp at One Buccaneer Place