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Jonathan Stewart ready to stand on own with DeAngelo Williams gone

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Mike Tolbert looked like a badly dressed member of the Secret Service instead of an NFL fullback the way he stood over Jonathan Stewart as the Carolina Panthers running back prepared to address the media.

Protection from the media, Stewart noted Sunday before taking the first question.

“Just in case y’all want to throw darts,’’ he said.

Asked what Tolbert, who keeps in shape by boxing during the offseason, would do if that happened, Stewart said, “You don’t want to find out.’’

Midway through the news conference, Tolbert lost his ability to keep a straight face and left Stewart to handle the spotlight alone.

And handle it Stewart did.

For the next 15 minutes, the eighth-year player out of Oregon answered questions about everything from what he has learned new on the piano to how he defends in practice cornerback Charles Tillman’s unique ability to strip the football.

In a way, it felt like it was the first day of his first training camp. In a way, it was.

Stewart has been in the shadow of DeAngelo Williams since arriving at Carolina as the 13th pick of the 2008 draft. Together they were called “Double Trouble,’’ but Williams always was the first part of double.

That ended when the Panthers released their all-time leading rusher in February. They did it because Williams was 32 and about to count $6.3 million against the salary cap. They did it because Stewart, after two straight years of dealing with ankle injuries, proved healthy enough to be the featured back.

Stewart ranked second in the NFL in rushing (486 yards) over the final five games of 2014. He had 123 yards in an NFC Wild Card playoff game against Arizona.

He sees no reason that won’t carry over into 2015 with basically the same offensive line returning and more weapons around him.

Still, he admits it’s different with Williams at Pittsburgh.

“Definitely, his presence is missed,’’ Stewart said. “The last seven years, especially here at Wofford, that’s been the groundbreaking piece for me and him, our bond and everything.

“So it’s definitely different not hearing his voice around, jumping and laughing and stuff.’’

Stewart isn’t and never will be as boisterous as Williams. He’s a quiet leader.

When asked to describe his personality, he said, “Consistent. ... Just chill.’’

Stewart can send chills down the spine of opposing defenses when his 5-foot-10, 235-pound frame gets a full head of steam.

This may be his first training camp as the featured back, but it’s not his first rodeo. Stewart rushed for 1,133 yards in 2009 when he and Williams became the first pair of backs in the modern era to surpass 1,100 yards on the same team in one year.

That’s when “Double Trouble’’ was born.

Now Stewart hopes to cause opponents trouble on his own. Maybe that’s why he recently learned to play “All of Me’’ by John Legend.

The first line – “What would I do without your smart mouth?’’ -- seems particularly appropriate with Williams gone.

“It’s different,’’ Stewart said. “It’s different him not being here.’’

It could be better.

Stewart had a good rhythm during this news conference, particularly when asked how much he pays Tolbert to be his body guard.

“It’s not even a number you can put on that thing, man,’’ Stewart said with a straight face. “It’s heart, determination ... he’s built for that type of thing,’’

He paused, then added, “Seventy-eight cents a day.’’