Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio discusses the Spartans' victory over Bowling Green, as well as their next opponent, Western Michigan. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State played nine true freshmen in the season opener against Bowling Green last weekend, and there could be more that find the field as the season gets rolling.
It’s not only out of necessity for a young, inexperienced team, but it’s also warranted as Mark Dantonio and his staff work to get the best players on the field.
And while there is plenty of potential in Michigan State’s freshman class, the reality is that not every player is ready when they first arrive on campus. For some, it takes some getting used to, including everything from finding your classes to fitting in on your team.
In other words, a little patience is necessary for some.
Wide receiver Darrell Stewart falls firmly into that category — a receiver/defensive back/quarterback from Houston that joined an eventual playoff team in 2015 complete with a pair of future NFLers at the wide receiver position. Finding the field was going to be hard for Stewart that year, to say the least.
But instead of that redshirt year becoming a negative, not to mention a 2016 season with limited playing time, Stewart used the time to soak up the offense.
“It definitely humbled me for the most part,” Stewart said. “Coming in you are never entitled, you can’t be entitled to anything. You’ve always got to be willing to work for everything and I feel like those two years helped me grow and be the player I’m now able to be.”
That willingness to work was clear to his teammates.
“I’ve seen the growth in him and it has been unreal,” said quarterback Brian Lewerke, who came in as part of the same recruiting class in 2015. “Coming in his freshman year he was one of those guys that you threw him out on the field he did not know what he was doing. He had trouble learning the offense. But the steps he’s taken since even last year are incredible.”
Those steps saw him double the number of receptions he had all of last season — three — in just one game. Stewart led the Spartans with six catches for 85 yards against Bowling Green and, quite frankly, he sees it as a sign of things to come.
“I felt like I did pretty good but there’s definitely a lot more where that came from,” Stewart said. “It’s like Coach D always teaches us, you always crank up the intensity every week but especially from week one to week two.”
If that happens for Stewart it could be the start of a breakout season for a player not many were talking about heading into preseason camp. At Dantonio’s news conference on Tuesday, one reporter mentioned how he hadn’t heard of Stewart and wondered where he came from.
Of course, those who follow the team closely would have noticed the coaching staff had been talking often about the fact Stewart was standing out in camp and had played himself into a starting spot amongst a group of receivers all fighting for opportunities.
That competition, especially from freshmen Cody White and Hunter Rison, has risen the play of the entire group, Stewart says.
“It’s better when there’s competition in the room and you see the talent that you don’t see if you’re the only guy in the room,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing when you have competition around.
“(Wide receivers) Coach (Terrence) Samuel is always preaching in our room anybody can be that guy and anybody can step up. So, I feel like the younger guys have got talent and I feel like I can match that talent and we can vibe off each other and be a great team.”
Stewart had the right vibe late in the first half when he had Michigan State’s biggest play. It was a two-minute situation and with the clock winding down, Lewerke hit Stewart over the middle in Bowling Green territory.
Stewart made a couple moves then scampered inside the 5-yard line before being dragged down at the 2 for a 40-yard gain that set up a Felton Davis touchdown.
“Man, I was starving for the end zone,” Stewart said. “Only if I knew how close I was. I really went into a tunnel vision and tried to run as fast as I could and saw the end zone and was hoping to dive for it. I stiff-armed one guy but another got me from behind. I’m looking forward to this week so I can finish it off.”
Stewart and the rest of the Spartans are sure the first touchdown is coming soon, not that he doesn’t have the patience. It’s the patience he learned while biding his time the last two seasons while working to become a starter this season.
He’s not content with one good game, either. After the win over Bowling Green, Stewart talked to his mom back in Houston. The whole family, who all made it safely through Hurricane Harvey, were over to watch his career-best game.
“It was pretty sweet to hear my mom so happy with my performance,” Stewart said.
Now getting his chance, Stewart is sure to have plenty more of those phone calls.