Stewart Set for Larger Role

Posted Jun 6, 2013

Surrounded by more grizzled, knowledgeable veterans at his position during his first three years in the league, Rams safety Darian Stewart more often than not found himself regularly asking questions of teammates like Quintin Mikell.

Now entering his fourth year in the league, Stewart can look around a meeting of safeties and see that he no longer is the one asking the questions, he’s the one providing the answers.

“That’s something I am not used to,” Stewart said. “But I make sure I stay in my playbook every night now. I feel like it’s on me to lead these guys and whatever they have questions with, I am willing to help them.”

That’s just one example of how Stewart’s role has changed for the Rams defense heading into the 2013 season. Following an offseason in which the Rams went through considerable change at the safety position by parting ways with Mikell and Craig Dahl, last year’s starters, Stewart suddenly finds himself as the elder statesman of his position group.

Beyond the added emphasis on serving as a leader for young teammates such as second-year safeties Matt Daniels and Rodney McLeod and rookie T.J. McDonald, among others, Stewart’s more obvious role change will come in how he’s used within the defense. 

“He comes in penciled in as a starter,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “He had a great offseason until last week. He’s got some soft tissue issues and a calf (injury) so we are holding him back right now but he’s got a good feel for what we’re doing and making all the calls and working well with the other three safeties.”

That it’s Stewart remaining as the most tenured amongst Rams safeties comes as something of a revelation given the difficulties he had finding his way in 2012. Nagging hamstring injuries and a late start on learning Fisher’s defensive scheme put Stewart behind the eight ball and he never quite caught up.

What was supposed to be a competition for the starting job with Dahl never materialized as Stewart appeared in 12 games, mostly on special teams, with no starts only a season after starting 13 and finishing third on the team in tackles.

“It was frustrating considering how well I played the year before that and not touching the field last year much,” Stewart said. “But it is what it is and it’s a new year. I’m ready to go full blast.”

Stewart entered the offseason as a restricted free agent and his status with the Rams remained unresolved until close to the deadline to sign offer sheets. Instead, Stewart and the Rams struck an agreement on a one-year deal.

At the time, Fisher made it clear he was excited to get another look at Stewart in his second year in the defensive scheme.

“It wasn’t a tough decision as far as Stew is concerned,” Fisher said. “Stew missed part of the offseason program and things fell into place and he didn’t get a chance to play very much but he’s a very talented player. So yeah, he steps up and he’s our guy. We are counting on him.”

For his part, Stewart wanted to stay a Ram after the team gave him his first shot as an undrafted three agent in 2010 and had invest three years in developing him.

“I felt like I finished off strong and if they wanted to bring me back, which they did, I’d be all in,” Stewart said. “So here I am.”

That Stewart is here, meaning at the Rams’ Organized Team Activities, should also help allow him to elevate his game in 2013. Stewart had made a promise that he’d finish his degree in retail from South Carolina and he spent a chunk of the 2012 offseason program delivering on that promise.

Stewart completed that degree last year even though it may have slowed his progress in understanding Fisher’s defense as quick as he might have liked.

Not that earning a degree can ever be considered a bad thing and Stewart has no regrets but he readily admits that he’s excited about what a full offseason of focus on football could yield.

“Last year, getting my degree, that was something I felt like I had to do,” Stewart said. “And now that that’s over with, this year and even further along in my career, I can completely focus on football. It feels good.”
Only halfway through the OTAs but with the offseason program nearly complete, Stewart said he can already see a difference in where his knowledge and understanding of the defense is now compared to a year ago.

That is a feeling shared by his coaches who have tasked Stewart to handle many of the calls and communicate the keys on the back end of the defense.

“I’m much further along now,” Stewart said. “I feel very confident in what we’ve got going on here. It’s going to be a fun year.”

In the Rams defensive scheme, the two safety positions are considered interchangeable, something that Stewart said is fine for him given his experience working both up in the box and patrolling center field on the back end.

Barring another roster move, no matter who lines up next to Stewart at safety will likely give the Rams one of the youngest tandems in the league at the position. While Stewart knows that bring with it an inherent amount of questions, he said that’s a task the secondary is eager to conquer.

“With this group in general – the whole secondary – I feel like it’s on us,” Stewart said. “We are young back there but we have the talent to get it done and that’s what we are going to do.  That’s what we want to do is prove people wrong every day we touch this field in practice and in games.”

Stewart also hasn’t hesitated to answer the many questions of his younger teammates or serve in a sort of expanded leadership role.  That part of the job comes with the territory when you’re the one who has been in the league the longest.

“I’m the oldest safety now, it’s different,” Stewart said. “I am accepting more of a leadership role and just trying to have these young guys prepared to the best of my abilities. The opportunity has presented itself and I am working at it. I’m trying to be the best player I can be and I accept that role and responsibility.”