The defense for the University of Maine’s football team has been decimated by injuries at two of the most important positions on that side of the ball: linebacker and safety.
Darius McKenzie played in only five of UMaine’s 10 games and fellow linebacker Christian Thomas appeared in just three games.
The two safeties who were starters, Robby Riobe and Shakur Smalls, played in just four and three games, respectively.
But a pair of unrelated Stewarts from Pennsylvania towns 60 miles apart have stepped in nicely in those spots and had productive campaigns.
Sophomore linebacker Tyshawn Stewart from Harrisburg is the team’s leading tackler with 55 and he has also forced a fumble.
Junior safety Abdul Stewart, who is from Coatesville, is third in tackles with 48 and leads the team in interceptions with three. He also has two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
“They’re both great players,” UMaine senior quarterback Derek Robertson said. “They work tremendously hard. I’m happy to see the success they’re having.”
UMaine head football coach Jordan Stevens has been pleased with their play.
“Tyshawn has been a steady guy for us all year. He had been making plays on special teams before his role increased on defense,” Stevens said. “He has stepped in and done a nice job. He knows his assignments. He’s a really sound player.”
Stevens said Abdul has a “lot of athletic ability.
“He has range and he can find his way around the ball. He has three picks [interceptions],” Stevens said. “He has really progressed well in the right way. He has energy and enthusiasm. We need him to play at a high level.”
Tyshawn had appeared in just nine games prior to this season and Abdul had played in 19.
Tyshawn said there is always a little frustration when you aren’t playing as much as you’d like “but you have to keep going and take things day by day. You never know when your time is going to come. We had a couple of guys go down, I got my opportunity and I ran with it.
“You’ve got to be ready,” he added. “I’ve progressed a lot. But I still want to improve in a lot of areas. I have to keep getting better.”
Being just 230 pounds, he finds himself going up against 300-plus pound offensive lineman all the time.
“One advantage you have over guys bigger than you is your speed and quickness,” Tyshawn said. “And you want to use that to your advantage. You also have to work with your hands. You need to keep them at a distance. You can’t let them get a hold of you because once they do, it’s hard to defeat them and get to the play.”
Abdul said he is trying to make the best of his opportunity.
When he was on the sidelines and wasn’t playing, Abdul would watch his teammates and learn from any mistakes they would make and correct.
“And I was always locked in and focused in the locker room. I was always observing. I was like a sponge,” Abdul said. “I would take techniques from other guys and put them into my game so I could get better.
“In this game, you can never stop learning,” Abdul said. “You have to focus and learn in order to get better. I’m like a sponge. There’s always a guy who knows more than you do.”
He has learned that “you can’t take any reps off.
“And you have to focus on the small details. Like [assistant] coach Justin Karriem says, if you focus on the small things, big plays will come to you,” Abdul said. “It’s a very mental position. It’s a lot more mental than physical. You have to watch film and understand your playbook.”
Abdul was a wide receiver in high school and also played safety. But he said he really didn’t understand the safety position.
“I was just flying around playing football [at safety],” Abdul said. “What a lot of people don’t know is that is only my third year as a defensive back.”
UMaine moved him to defensive back his freshman year.
“They put me at nickel back because I was good in [man-to-man] coverage,” he said “But I stayed locked in and focused as a defensive back and got better and better.”
Both of them said as they have gained more experience, the game has slowed down for them because they are more accustomed to everything.
“I’m reading things faster and I’m playing faster as well,” Abdul said. “Your eyes control everything. I trust my keys and my keys take me to where I’m supposed to be.”
“The game has slowed down tremendously for me and it slows down every week,” Tyshawn said.
Tyshawn said he came to UMaine because it was the first school to recruit him and offer him a scholarship.
Abdul was planning to attend St. Francis University in Pennsylvania until he received a phone call from the UMaine coaching staff.
“It was at night and it said ‘Maine Black Bears’ on my phone. I didn’t know anything about Maine Black Bears. So I picked up the phone and they offered me a scholarship,” Abdul said with a grin. “Shout out to Mike Ryan and Jared Keyte for giving me the opportunity.”
Ryan and Keyte were former UMaine assistants who became defensive coordinators at UMaine.
The Black Bears, 2-8 overall and 1-6 in the Coastal Athletic Association, conclude their season against archrival New Hampshire at Wildcat Stadium in Durham, New Hampshire, at 1 p.m. Saturday.
It is the annual battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket.
UNH is 5-5 and 3-4 and boasts the Football Bowl Subdivision passing yards leader in Max Brosmer (3,178) and all-purpose yards leader in Dylan Laube (2,095) although both got injured in the 31-24 win at Monmouth last weekend.
“We’ve got to play our best. We’re up for the challenge,” said Tyshawn, who will be making his sixth career start.
“We have to eliminate their running game and force them to pass,” said Abdul, who will be making the 12th start of his career.
Stevens said they will be two of the building blocks for next year’s defense.