CINCINNATI -- Had Walter Stewart simply held his own last year, that would have qualified as a success.
He was a redshirt freshman who didn't expect to play much for Cincinnati. Instead, he found himself starting at linebacker most of the season for a Top 5 team. Stewart had to fill in for an injured Curtis Young early in the year, and he played so well that he kept on starting.
Stewart was often asked to step up to the defensive line or stop bulldozing running backs and pulling guards in the Bearcats' 3-4 system. That led to physical mismatches, since Stewart was listed at only 226 pounds. He says he was down to about 210 by the end of the season. In a recent interview, former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly described Stewart as being "about 192 pounds."
Let's just agree he was undersized.
"It was a big challenge," Stewart said. "When you're considered the weakest link, the offense is going to attack. That puts you in a situation where you've go to step up, make plays or do something to try and counteract that."
Stewart usually made up for his lack of bulk. He finished the year with 59 tackles, 4.5 sacks and an interception. But he knew he had to hit the weight room hard this offseason, and he said he finished spring practice at about 235 pounds. His goal for fall camp is 245.
As the strong-side linebacker in the 4-3 scheme this year, Stewart will again be asked to rush the quarterback in certain situations. He'll need to be stouter against the bigger O-lines in the Big East, like UConn and Pittsburgh.
"That's what made me want to work harder this year," he said. "I've got to get ready to be in the trenches a lot, and you've got to get big with the big guys down there."
Stewart has had to learn different techniques when playing on the line and dropping into coverage. But he's as athletic a player as the Bearcats have on defense, and his speed allows him to cover a lot of ground.
"It's definitely a challenge," he said of his dual responsibilities. "But that's my role on defense and I accept it and am ready for it."
And Stewart plans to do a whole lot more than just hold his own this year.