August 20, 2002
CHAPEL HILL - He's quick but undersized, and relatively new to the linebacker position. Although he carved out a nice career at Goldsboro (N.C.) High, for three years he almost never made it onto the field at North Carolina.
Last season, for example, he had four tackles. All season. And this, you ask, is the guy being asked to become a leader on the UNC defense in 2002?
Sure it is, and not without precedent. The UNC defense has depended before on a player with just such an unimpressive resume, and that worked out OK. Maybe you remember David Thornton. Meet David Thornton II, better known as Malcolm Stewart.
"I expect him to be a playmaker," UNC coach John Bunting said. "I really think Malcolm Stewart is going to have a break-out year."
Stewart better, because he enters the season as the Tar Heels' most experienced linebacker, even though he has spent the better part of his college career at defensive end. The other two projected starters at linebacker are redshirt freshman Doug Justice in the middle and sophomore Clarence Gaddy (career tackle total: two) on the side opposite Stewart.
Stewart, a 6-3, 223-pound senior, is the leader of that group and not necessarily out of necessity. He has shown the toughness (he played most of the 2000 season with a broken wrist) and the speed (40-yard time: 4.58 seconds) needed to become a stalwart on a defense in dire need of one. Eight starters are gone from last season's unit, including Thornton and five other members of the front seven.
"I know they're counting on me here, and that gets me fired up," Stewart said. "I think I'm ready to make plays. I've learned a lot from David."
That would be Thornton, Stewart's former teammate not only at UNC but also in high school. Thornton is the former walk-on defensive back who finally got his big break as a UNC senior and capitalized. He led the team in 2001 with 131 tackles, earned second-team All-ACC honors and was selected in the fourth round of the 2002 NFL draft by Indianapolis.
Before leaving town, Thornton schooled Stewart on the finer points of blossoming from junior special-teamer to senior star.
"He said it's all about hard work in the preseason, hard work and preparation," said Stewart, a defensive end in 1999 and 2000 before moving to linebacker last season. "He told me I've got to study film, lift weights, do extra running - do everything in my power to get the most out of my ability. That's what I've been doing, and I can see a difference."
So can everyone else. On the first play from scrimmage in spring practice, Stewart intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. Come to think of it, not even Thornton did that.