Sikkema’s Story of the Week

Attitude is everything. When you wake up in the morning, whether the day ahead will bring something you’re looking forward to or something you’re not, how you handle it depends on your attitude. It’s your attitude that often determines how far you go. You’ve heard the phrase “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” right? The theme of that saying is attitude. It’s about outlook. It’s about approaching a situation the right way.

When you get in your car to go to work, it’s your attitude that will determine the outcome of that day. When you’re making a big decision, one that can be stressful, it’s your attitude that will take you a long way. And when you’re lined up against Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans one-on-one in your first rookie training camp of your career, it’s your attitude that will make or break that play.

Bucs rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart does a lot of things well when it comes to playing defensive back in the game of football, and we’re seeing evidence of that each and every day we’re out at Bucs camp. But, if you ask me, the most coveted asset Stewart has is his attitude – his mentality – his ability to take both success and failure and spin both in positive, progressive ways.

Part of having the right attitude for playing cornerback in the NFL is about having confidence, and when reading up on Stewart before this year’s NFL draft, you could read his confidence off a page of a transcribed interview.

North Carolina CB M.J. Stewart - Photo courtesy of UNC

North Carolina CB M.J. Stewart – Photo courtesy of UNC

“That’s a big reason why I came back [to UNC],” Stewart said when answering a question of why he didn’t decide to go pro and rather elected to return to school for senior season.”I feel like I didn’t have the type of season that I wanted to have. I didn’t want to end my college career with zero interceptions. I decided I wanted to come back and end on a bang and make people remember who I am.”

“I wanted people to remember who I am.” I love it. Stewart wants to be known, and not in the arrogant or over-cocky kind of way. He wants to be know as the best M.J. Stewart he can be – because he believes that that person and that athlete is worth remembering.

“It was a really tough decision,” Stewart explained. “It was another year of college football and having fun with my brothers or living out a childhood dream. It was really tough. I firmly believe to this day that I made the right decision.”

That’s what Stewart said before his final season, before he had career highs in snaps, sacks, tackles for loss and passes defended. He didn’t increase that interception total like he wanted to, but he improved his catch percentage and throw-to percentage with better coverage at multiple positions.

Stewart put his childhood dream of the NFL on hold because he thought there was unfinished business. He believed that the chapter of M.J. Stewart as a college football player wasn’t as good as it could have been. He was right, and all signs say he was better for it in the end.

“It all starts with M.J.,” Tar Heels defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said of his senior corner before his final season. “He played well last year. He is an NFL corner. He can go inside and play nickel. He is the prototypical guy that they look for at that level. He can cover, he can tackle, he plays the ball down the field.”

“Played well” wasn’t enough for Stewart. It wasn’t his best, and he knew it.

What Stewart went into the 2018 NFL Draft with was likely the best foot he was going to put forward. That was evident by a strong Senior Bowl performance where he was the most dominant cornerback of any in attendance. That got the attention of many general managers, including the Bucs’ own Jason Licht. Fellow Tampa Bay rookie cornerback Carlton Davis is talked about as the cornerback prospect with the most upside from this Bucs’ rookie class, but don’t forget that Stewart was drafted ahead of David.

A reason for that: attitude – not that Davis doesn’t have quite the attitude himself.

The Bucs have a deep and talent receiving corps, and coming off 2017 most would have said the opposite about their defense back group. Licht and his coaching staff knew that if they were going to select cornerbacks high in the draft that they had to have the mental make up to go along with the skill, knowing they’d likely take their lump early on in their careers. Stewart has taken his fair share of plays that have gone against him, but for every play he’s given up, there’s a play where he’s bounced back. No big catch against him gets to him enough to have a negative affect long-term; he’s learning through it.

Bucs CB M.J. Stewart - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs CB M.J. Stewart – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“It is tough. I’m not going to lie, but you just got to be mentally tough and just know it’s next play,” Stewart said after a recent training camp practice. “Because one play you can get a flag, but the next play you can get a pick-six and change the whole game and change the whole momentum. So you can’t get down on yourself because it’s like a ripple affect and it’s just like a domino affect and it just all goes downhill from there.”

As a safety/cornerback hybrid player, Stewart has gone through the gauntlet of Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiving weapons. He’s seen reps against Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. He’s given up some plays by those guys, but he also has top-notch reps against each.

Last week in camp, Godwin put Stewart on his highlight reel with a tough catch through good coverage and a strong move at the end that nearly ended up ripping Godwin’s helmet off.

https://twitter.com/PewterReport/status/1024651929031532544/video/1

It was a good play, even Stewart said that himself. But he said it in a manner that made you think the next good play would be his to have – revenge.

“I’m a scrappy player, I didn’t mean to pull his helmet,” Stewart said. “It was unintentional, but I’m a scrappy player. I don’t want any catches on me, so I’m going to fight to the end. Like I said, it was an unbelievable catch by him. Kudos to him, but we battle everyday.”

The Bucs like to play their defensive backs in versatile positions. They move their safeties up and back depending on how the offense aligns to which side of the field. Sometimes defensive coordinator Mike Smith plays his cornerbacks in more off coverage (I know) and other times those cornerbacks can get aggressive (I know). Stewart has seen reps all around as an inside and outside cornerback on the first, second and third teams. The coaching staff seems to be giving him as many reps as they can because they know he can handle it.

Not just with skill, but with attitude.

“M.J., get in there and cover the tight end.”

“M.J., sub in and take the shallow zone.”

“M.J., play deep on this one.”

Whatever the assignment has been to this point in camp, Stewart has been up for the challenge, not just with willingness but with confidence.

Stewart put off his dream because he knew he had more to prove. Now he believes he’s ready, and the more challenges he can face and the more reps he can win, he knows he’ll be on course towards being remembered, this time as a professional football player.

“I think about it every night,” Stewart said. “I think about that every night especially after watching that Hall of Fame game (Ravens vs. Bears) last night. It’s just exciting, you know that’s why I come to compete everyday in practice, because I know I have that the preseason coming up. That’s the time for me to go out there and show everybody, show the world, what I can do.”

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: [email protected]
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Ja'crispy
Ja'crispy
3 years ago

I am really impressed with M.J. so far during training camp. He and Davis seem like they can really bring some swagger to this Bucs secondary. Which should rub off on the others (VHIII). I think both of them are our CBS of the future. Hopefully they both will see a lot of playing time in Miami. Im excited to see what they can do in a real game. I think M.J. is so versatile he will be aggressive in the slot but id be totally confident if he was playing outside too. Im not willing to give up on… Read more »

MudManVA
MudManVA
3 years ago

Gotta see them in action during the preseason against an unfamiliar opponent. Nice start that they look good in practice. Hargreaves looked better in practice last year if we remember. The hope is we have a young group of studs!

owlykat
owlykat
3 years ago

We will need three excellent corners next year and some subs behind them. Davis should play on the side with the biggest WRs and VHIII should play the other side and both be press corners and Stewart should come in as a nickel/slot corner with Smith as a backup for all three, but pickup another good CB in the draft in the third round as the second backup.

owlykat
owlykat
3 years ago

Use the first round for a great LT; and get another DE to study behind PFF in the second round. I think Whitehead will develop into a fine Strong Safety and have plenty of range with his excellent speed to pair with Evans. So the rest of the picks can be BPA.

scubog
scubog
Reply to  owlykat
3 years ago

Haven’t even played the first preseason game and Owlykat is talking Draft.

Hank Scorpio
Hank Scorpio
3 years ago

Bah Gawd!!! That’s MJ Stewart’s music!!!

DT25
DT25
3 years ago

Honestly, it’s great to have versitile players. For the long term, I don’t care which one of him or Hargreaves is starting on the inside and outside. Whichever works best. That said, I’m glad we’re giving Hargreaves another shot on the outside in what should be a more aggressive scheme this season… assuming the pass rush works as advertised and the injury bug doesn’t bite. I think the scheme fit and lack of pass rush really destroyed his confidence last season and he got it back by moving inside where he was allowed to play press coverage and underneath zones… Read more »

Jordan Chavez
Jordan Chavez
3 years ago

I’m very excited to have Smith, Stewart and VH3 as the cornerbacks of the future. I hope those three and Evans can build chemistry and really turn into a strength of this team. Even with how effective Grimes has been, if Smith feels like he has to scheme around that and have the corners play off coverage I would honestly rather not have Grimes and play to the strength of this defense and let Davis and VH3 play press on the outside and Stewart in the slot and let Evans play over the top. Obviously that’s unrealistic, Grimes is going… Read more »

Schianoismyhero
Schianoismyhero
3 years ago

First paragraph. Wrong “your”.

Nolabucsman
Nolabucsman
3 years ago

With better Dline play secondary should be better this season. Dline just could not get any pressure last season secondary had run around too long.