Darian Stewart believes South Carolina has the best crop of defensive backs currently playing in the NFL and, when taking longevity into account, one of the best groups overall historically as well.
The names rattled off by the former Gamecocks’ (2006-09) safety are a who’s who of quality cornerbacks and safeties: Stephon Gilmore, Dunta Robinson, D.J. Swearinger, Sheldon Brown, Andre Goodman. NFL veterans Johnathan Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn.
“We’ve had DBs for years going back. The proof is in the pudding,” Stewart told Spurs & Feathers. “ ... I do think we’re the best group of DBs from one school, honestly. And we’re talking longevity. We’ve [all] put in like ten-plus years. No disrespect to anyone else, but everyone’s not putting in ten-plus years.
“We just have some different cats. We have professional DBs.”
The NFL veteran — a free agent approaching his 11th season in the league — sees the same successful future for current South Carolina cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu.
“I love ‘em. I love everything about South Carolina and those DBs,” he said. “They just have to keep it up and never forget what they’re trying to accomplish. They have the size and the tools. It’s all about consistency and playing with that chip on their shoulders week in and week out.”
“I can promise you, they have the size and the mindsets. Watching those guys and the way they play, they’re at the right school.”
Talking about the current Gamecocks evoked memories of Stewart’s own college career — including when he and South Carolina beat No. 8 Kentucky his sophomore season and his first-career start, four weeks earlier at No. 11 Georgia, a 16-12 upset victory.
“That let me know that I had arrived and I could play in the SEC,” he said.
Stewart especially enjoyed rivalry games against Clemson, a team he and South Carolina beat his freshman and senior seasons.
“That rivalry right there has always been intense and I always loved playing in it,” Stewart said. “I’m glad I got a chance to play in that game.”
Though Stewart went undrafted in 2010, he parlayed his college career into a successful NFL career that has taken him from the Rams (2010-2013) and Baltimore Ravens (2014) to the Denver Broncos (2015-18) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2019).
He was named a Pro Bowl selection in 2016 and was part of the Ravens’ Super Bowl 50 championship team.
“That was a lifelong dream. You can imagine it playing the sport growing up, but once you’re in it, and the moment is there, it’s about enjoying it,” Stewart said. “ ... But when the time came we put our blinders on and we stayed focused on the mission. We had a bunch of leaders on the team that held everyone accountable.”
In 10 seasons Stewart has five sacks, 46 pass deflections, six forced fumbles and 11 interceptions. The first interception, which came against Drew Brees, he returned for a touchdown.
“[Former Saints tight end] Jimmy Graham ran a hitch route at the sticks and I jumped it,” Stewart said. “I was playing Dime linebacker and I picked it off, rolled with it, got up and took it to the house.”
Unfortunately, Stewart continued, a Saints’ offensive lineman was so upset he punted the ball into the stands and Stewart was never able to get it back.
In 2016 Stewart picked off Brees two more times, and also recovered a fumble, in one game against New Orleans.
Now a free agent, Stewart has spent his coronavirus pandemic quarantine mostly at home in Fort Mill with his wife, Whitley, and 4-year-old daughter Hayden.
“Everyone’s safe and healthy, but with Hayden, staying in the house is what she doesn’t do well,” Stewart said with a laugh. “We try to keep her active. I’ve had to purchase some things on Amazon just to keep her attention. We got her a moon bounce, like a bounce house, so we put that in the backyard. And she has a bike.”
Stewart himself has done a lot of 10-20-mile bike rides as well as using a Peloton bike in his in-home gym. He’s also reading more than he normally does — he’s currently reading “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F***” — and has played more X-Box (Madden and Grand Theft Auto) than he ever has.
“With all this going on, football has been the furthest thing from my mind,” Stewart said. “I’m going into year 11 now, so it’s all about taking care of my family and my health. I’m putting football on the back burner for right now until this stuff blows over.
“I don’t even know if there’s going to be a season as soon as people are expecting. There’s so much uncertainty going around. As much as I love football, my family always comes first.”
The brief pause and cancellation of on-field offseason programs has given Stewart a chance to rest his body and possibly prolong his career.
However, he’s still a free agent, and he admits it has been tough to get on teams’ radars during the pause in league action.
“I actually went through this last year. It’s the same thing as last year. I didn’t end up signing until August,” Stewart said. “I was able to enjoy time with my family and do my own thing, which I actually prefer.
“But it’s hard being a free agent and being expected to come in and play a full season without [training camp]. But everybody is going through it now, so it could work out.”
Last season, after signing with Tampa Bay on Aug. 13, Stewart played three weeks later in the team’s season-opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
“That damn Deebo ran me over,” Stewart said, referring to South Carolina alumnus and current 49er receiver Deebo Samuel. “He came on hot from game one.”
Stewart isn’t worried about the future — about if and when the NFL season will be played. He knows each state will continue to have different and evolving rules regarding large gatherings. He has even heard talk about the season being pushed back to the spring.
“The NFL will try any way to get us back on the field,” Stewart said. “But it’s all about being smart, at the end of the day.
“As a competitor, you want that crowd. But at the end of the day you still have a job to do and a mission to accomplish. ... But you want those fans. When they come to your home, like at Willy B, you feed off those fans. ... Not having that, it could play a part [in a game’s outcome].”
Stewart also runs Stewart Standouts, a foundation that promotes youth advancement, creativity and finding a passion. He also established a STEM program at the Boys & Girls Club near where he grew up in Alabama. Just last month he partnered with Brookland Lakeview Empowerment to provide meals for seniors in West Columbia.
All of it — his football career and off-the-field charity work — stems from his time as a Gamecock student-athlete.
Said Stewart, “Being at South Carolina changed my life for the better. Leaving home in Alabama and coming to South Carolina, I met a lot of great people. I had to grow up fast. I was alone. One thing I told myself was I wasn’t going back home. I was going to make this thing work.
“I wasn’t going to look back. I was going to keep moving forward and change. And now I’ve made my home here in the Carolinas.”