The question didn’t seem all that difficult to White Hall football coach Mike Vaughn: Where does Joseph Stewart rank among all the secondary players he’s coached?
“He’s as good as any we’ve ever had,” Vaughn said. “We’ve had some good ones, but he’s a good as anybody we’ve ever had, since I’ve been here.”
Stewart, The Commercial’s Southeast Arkansas Defensive Player of the Year, was a primary defender in the Bulldogs’ secondary with his ability in the clutch and his consistency in making plays. He finished the season with 10 interceptions, four more than he had last season, in helping the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish in the 5A-South Conference and a second-round state playoff appearance.
Seven of Stewart’s picks came in White Hall’s last six games, a stretch in which the team totaled 18. But it became clear with his playmaking ability that Stewart was the leader of the Bulldogs’ defense and highly dependable in the clutch, helping him earn the honor.
Stewart, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior free safety, wanted to raise his game coming off a junior season hampered by an ankle injury.
“I couldn’t break on the ball like I wanted to,” he said. “And we had some rainy games where it was hard to pick the ball off, but after that, I think everybody started realizing what they could when they started breaking on the ball. Starting to pay attention in practice really helped us, starting to focus on what we need to do and we started being in the right spot.”
Vaughn said Stewart’s intelligence along with his ability to be at the right spot at the right time set him apart from other defensive backs he’s coached in 10 years heading the Bulldogs.
“If they’re throwing the football, and we needed to make a play, it was usually him,” Vaughn said. “You could see last year, as the season wore on, he got better and better. He got better this year as well. The last five weeks, he played a lot better than he did the first five weeks. If you’re a good football player, you’re dedicated and you work hard, that’s what should happen.”
The Bulldogs played mostly predominant-run teams early in the season, but the more they faced pass-happy teams, the more Stewart and Co. stepped up.
One of Stewart’s biggest highlights of the season came at home on Oct. 12 in a key conference game against archrival Watson Chapel. He picked off a pass with 1 minute remaining to end Chapel’s last threat and seal a 48-41 victory.
Stewart said that was his favorite moment of the season because it came in a rivalry game. It was also Vaughn’s favorite.
“That’s one of those you take a deep breath on,” Vaughn said. “He put the nail in the old coffin.”
Stewart’s best game, however, came a week later on homecoming against Hot Springs. He picked off two of his three passes in the final 92 seconds to preserve a 40-28 victory, returning one 59 yards for the insurance touchdown. His last pick ended Hot Springs’ final drive.
“That was a heck of a game,” Stewart said. “The way they were playing, I wasn’t sure if we were going to pull that one out. Those stops really helped us.”
Although Stewart almost doubled his interceptions from 2011, he said he never set a goal of reaching a certain number.
“I just wanted to help my team do whatever we needed to win,” he said. “After I started making a few interceptions, I started making it a goal to get as many as I could.”
Defensive Player of the Year
Joseph Stewart • Free safety, White Hall
• 10 interceptions (2 returned for touchdowns)
• 32 tackles, 8 pass breakups
• Offensively, 20 receptions for 489 yards, 6 touchdowns and 300 yards rushing and 2 TDs
• Scored TDs defensively, rushing, receiving, passing, and on kickoff returns this season