Of the 14 North Carolina players that earned All-ACC recognition on the Tar Heels’ 2015 Coastal Division championship team, only one remains.
M.J. Stewart, a 6-0, 205-pound senior, was a fearsome sophomore cornerback that year with four interceptions and could have jumped to the NFL at the end of last season. He likely would have been picked in the middle rounds of the NFL draft, but the opportunity to set an example as a veteran on a young team was too much to pass up.
“It was a really tough decision. It was another year of college football having fun with my brothers, or living a childhood dream,” Stewart said. “I firmly believe to this day I made the right decision.”
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Stewart was an unlikely candidate to develop into a team leader at the start of his career at North Carolina.
He was suspended for the first game of his freshman year in connection with an alleged hazing incident that left walk-on wide receiver Jackson Boyer concussed, and he served a two-game suspension in 2015 after he was charged with assault. But when Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora needed to pick a defensive player to represent his team at ACC Kickoff earlier this month, he did not hesitate to turn to his senior cornerback.
Stewart cleaned up his image with a season free of controversy last fall and joined the North Carolina team in a leadership training experience run by former special forces soldiers called The Program, which puts clients through grueling team-building exercises.
“He’s matured so much in his time at Carolina,” Fedora said. “He has become a man. He’s made mistakes in the past, he’s learned from those mistakes, he faced the consequences of those mistakes and he’s grown from it.... I’m proud of what he’s done.”
Stewart also came back to school because he felt he has more to prove on the field than what he showed last season. It was the first year of his career with no interceptions — the entire North Carolina team only had one — and when the All-ACC teams were released in November, he did not make the cut as one of the six best cornerbacks in the league.
“I did miss a few opportunities myself, and I kick myself every day for those,” Stewart said. “I didn’t want to end my college career having zero interceptions, so I decided that I wanted to come back and end on a bang. Make people remember who I am.”
Now, Stewart will join redshirt senior Donnie Miles as a mentor for a young secondary featuring talented sophomores Myles Dorn and K.J. Sails after star safety Des Lawrence graduated last year. Stewart said he worked on his football IQ and route recognition in the offseason, and he also helped his less experienced teammates with the physical side of the game.
“I’ve definitely incorporated a lot of young guys in my workouts. I’m a big guy on working out,” Stewart said. “Before, I would just work out by myself, but now I felt like I needed to bring a lot of young guys with me, bring them to the field with me and show them how I work out to give them an example.”
Stewart admitted he still isn’t always a vocal leader in practice — junior linebacker Andre Smith occupies that role — but he has started to speak up occasionally when he feels that the team isn’t taking a workout seriously.
Fedora wishes the rest of his team would take his senior leader’s example to heart.
“He is the hardest working guy in practice on our football team. It’s measurable. We put GPS on our guys, and I can tell you from every single practice from the first day of fall camp to the end, he will be the top guy every single day,” Fedora said. “If every guy on our football team did that, we could win a national championship.”
Fedora’s bold statement befits a defensive back with bold ambitions for his future. Stewart thinks a strong season could make his draft stock much higher than it was last winter, and he said he tries to emulate All-Pro cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Malcolm Butler with his play.
“That’s the level I want to get to at some point in my life,” Stewart said. “I want to be one of those premier corners in the league.”