The play of Florida’s safeties in the team’s first three contests left much to be desired, but there was a good reason behind the subpar showings.
With junior safety Shawn Davis sidelined with a knee injury, in addition to the absences of Marco Wilson, C.J. McWilliams and Quincy Lenton, Florida’s secondary has found itself depleted, thus thrusting inexperienced players into considerable action.
Although he arrived in Gainesville with all of the hype and regard in 2017, safety Brad Stewart Jr. didn’t see the field much in 2017 outside of special teams, although he did record an interception in Florida’s 36-7 victory over UAB.
But in four games this season, Stewart has seen a significant amount of action, and it’s not just due to Florida’s injury woes. Stewart’s eventual emergence was predicted long before UF’s secondary found itself depleted.
A former four-star prospect out of New Orleans, Stewart wasn’t expected to escape Louisiana. The No. 6-ranked prospect out of the Pelican State, Stewart was between Florida and LSU before ultimately committing to UF defensive backs coach Torrian Gray just several days before National Signing Day, and just 24 hours after his official visit to UF.
As it turns out, luring Stewart from Louisiana started more than a decade earlier with a wise recruiting decision Dan Mullen made while serving as UF’s offensive coordinator.
“When I first got into football, it was around the time Tim Tebow was here, when I first started watching on TV, and that’s when the Florida Gators were giving relentless effort and being dominant week in, week out, every day,” Stewart recalled. “Going into high school, when I got all my offers, I really knew where I wanted to go, but I still wanted to play recruiting and come, but this is DBU (Defensive Back University), you feel me? So I know that I needed to be here and make a statement and make a name for myself, and really come in, join DBU and keep the legacy going.”
Stewart played his part Saturday in keeping Florida’s “DBU” mantra alive and well. In the second half of Florida’s 47-21 win at Tennessee, Stewart added to an already dominant showing by UF’s defense. On the opening kick-off, Stewart made a critical play on special teams to keep the momentum on Florida’s side, forcing a fumble to give the Gators the ball back.
A career-defining moment for many, but Stewart’s third quarter was just getting started.
Two drives later, UT quarterback Jarrett Guarantano looked deep and fired a pass intended for wide receiver Brandon Johnson, and it appeared as if Johnson had an opportunity to haul it in and put six on the scoreboard for the Volunteers.
But Stewart dove just in time, snatching the pass out of the air and giving the Gators possession on the two-yard line.
In just one period of action, Stewart had seemingly lived up to the DBU mentality that led him to Florida.
“We wanted to come out in the second half and be consistent, show that we’re still dominant. We don’t want to come out as slacking, as a team that comes out dry in the second half,” Stewart said. “So therefore, we wanted to come out and show that we give it a spark and get our offense back the ball. So I just tried to do my best and get the ball out.”
Although the Gators eventually secured the victory over the Volunteers with ease, plays like Stewart’s may end up as game-defining sequences against an opponent such as Mississippi State.
UF hits the road once again to face the Bulldogs, and Stewart knows the secondary will need to provide a similar performance if the team expects to escape Starkville with a victory.
Yet Saturday showed the Gators likely won’t have to alter the secondary’s mentality or objective — if the rotation sticks to the game plan and keeps making big plays, the result will more often than not end up in Florida’s favor.
And those depth issues many have pointed to? They seemingly didn’t show up on Saturday, and Stewart doesn’t foresee them being a problem moving forward into the thick of the season.
“Whenever we’re on the field, we know we’re only in for a certain amount of plays, because we know we got subs. And if we get tired, we tap and there’s no selfishness in our secondary,” Stewart said. “The next man steps up, everybody’s got to know what to do, so therefore I think the system that they’ve got going on, and how I’m being implemented is very good.”