To say M.J. Stewart has seen the highs and lows in his time at North Carolina would be to understate the variety of his experience. He played on one of the worst defenses in ACC history and he played for an ACC title. He was suspended twice, only to grow into one of the team’s strongest and most vocal leaders.
It’s been a long and undulating career for the senior cornerback, different than he ever expected, right to the end. Especially the end.
He passed on the chance to enter the NFL draft last spring, wanting to be a leader on this team and feeling like he had unfinished business in Chapel Hill. Instead, the Tar Heels are 1-6 in his senior season and will need something like a miracle just to make a bowl game.
“To be real, it’s definitely not what I pictured my senior season being,” Stewart said. “It’s the game of football. Anything can happen. I feel like every week, we’re always a few plays away from getting a win.”
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While the Tar Heels have been blown out (by Georgia Tech, by Notre Dame), more often they have played hard and lost; sometimes, like Saturday, by the finest of margins. This one slipped right through Stewart’s own hands, even.
Those fine margins ended up being as small as the width of Stewart’s foot, or the strength of his grasp. Stewart had a chance to make a touchdown-saving tackle on Olamide Zaccheaus on Virginia’s go-ahead touchdown but couldn’t bring him down. In the fourth quarter, with the Tar Heels down by six, Chris Sharp’s fumble bounced right into Stewart’s hands with a clear path to the end zone, only for his right foot to be a few inches out of bounds. Not only did the Tar Heels not get the touchdown, they didn’t even get the fumble.
Those were just two of many such plays – like Brandon Harris missing a wide-open Anthony Ratliff-Williams in the end zone on the game’s final drive, or the officials deciding a Virginia player did not grasp Harris’ facemask on North Carolina’s final play – and Stewart was merely one of many such players, but the fumble non-recovery in particular loomed as a game-changing turn of events.
“M.J., if he’s 6 inches farther in, he’s taking that the distance,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “That may be the game-winning play. There are a lot of those things that happen out there in a game. But when things aren’t going your way, they’re magnified. And somebody’s got to make one of those plays. In a tight game like that, somebody’s got to. And we didn’t do that, but again, no fault because of their effort. It’s just not going our way right now.”
So it goes for the Tar Heels in a season that is not only unlike what Stewart expected, but anything he has experienced in his time at North Carolina.
He arrived on campus in 2014 and was suspended for his first game after a hazing incident, not out of character in a season that saw the Tar Heels set records for defensive ineptness, give up 70 points at East Carolina, fall to 6-7 overall and provoke a change of defensive coordinators between the end of the regular season and a bowl loss to Rutgers.
Which is to say: Stewart has seen worse than this, even if the Tar Heels’ record right now may not reflect it.
He has also seen better, in 2015 when North Carolina played for the ACC championship – Stewart missed two games of that season after being suspended for an off-campus incident – and came within a controversial onside kick of having a chance to upset Clemson, and even in 2016 when the Tar Heels weren’t particularly dominant but still managed to grind out eight wins.
That team was, in many ways, the opposite of this one. Its errors were never as catastrophic as they have been this year; it eked out wins where this team has eked out losses – 3-3 in one-possession games, as opposed to 0-2 this season.
The comparison Stewart draws upon now, though, predates even his tenure. The year before he arrived on campus, North Carolina started 1-5 before winning five straight. Stewart watched that from afar, at home in Arlington, Va., but an interested party nonetheless.
He was just a kid then, a high-schooler looking forward to college. Now he’s four years older, a college senior looking forward to what’s next, trying to find a way to salvage a final season he never expected to be like this.
“A successful season is a winning season,” Stewart acknowledged. “For this season, if we can just get ourselves together, execute, make the plays we’re supposed to make offensively and defensively, and we win out, that’s pretty successful to me. That means we finished strong.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock