There are few players who can change a game the same way a good pass rusher can. The ability to put pressure on the quarterback is vital to a team's overall defensive success.
While many teams are left scouring their roster for a dominant pass rusher, Vanderbilt has found that player in junior defensive end Broderick Stewart.
What makes a good pass rusher even more coveted is that they're in short supply. Regardless of where they find them or how they utilize them, teams can't have enough of them.
Listed at 6-5, 230 pounds, the rangy Stewart has been a menace in the backfield since arriving at Vanderbilt. As a redshirt freshman, Stewart finished second on the team with five sacks, and last year he led the team with six sacks.
Although he never started a game until Vanderbilt's season opener at Miami (Ohio), Stewart's presence on the field has long been felt by his teammates.
"We love having Broderick out there with us because he is always giving 100 percent," junior safety Ryan Hamilton said. "I know the quarterback knows he is there, and they are always worried about him because he is going to put the pressure on them and it helps everyone out in the back end."
In addition to his sack total, Stewart also shared the team lead with six quarterback hurries and ranked second with 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2007.
Stewart's ability to get to the quarterback also has affected Vanderbilt's defense in ways that even his individual numbers can't describe.
"Because of his existence as a speed rusher, quarterbacks feel his presence and it's helped other guys get sacks," Vanderbilt defensive line coach Rick Logo said. "When we can get a quarterback to move his feet and step up in the pocket, it helps our linebackers and defensive tackles because of what he does on the edge."
Despite his production on the field, Stewart constantly has been under the microscope for carrying such little weight at a position where players typically average at least 260 pounds.
"I understand that and I need to, but if I gain too much weight too soon, I'm not going to be as effective, so I have to be careful," Stewart said.
Stewart's weight has been so hotly discussed since he arrived on campus that it even earned him the nickname "Razor" when he was a freshman.
Although Stewart is outweighed by as much as 100 pounds by some offensive tackles he faces, he views his size as an advantage more so than a disadvantage.
"Speed is the key to my success," Stewart said. "They say speed kills, they don't say weight kills."
Because of his speed, Stewart is able to get around larger, slower offensive lineman in his pursuit of the quarterback. Even with his speed and quickness, Stewart knows that there are many areas of his game he needs to improve.
"Speed is good, but I really want to work on things that I don't feel comfortable with ... not necessarily stopping the run, but a certain technique," Stewart said. "I just try to focus on things, and I put myself in bad situations some times, so I can make my weaknesses my strengths."
As Stewart continues to improve his skills, his status among SEC defenders will continue to rise.
In the past, a player of Stewart's size would have been labeled a "tweener" in the NFL, meaning the player was either too big to play outside linebacker or too small to play defensive end in the NFL.
Today, the word "tweener" in the football dictionary has an entirely different meaning and has even been replaced by a much newer word, "hybrid."
Players who are limited by their physical traits are no longer left on the outside looking in because they don't fall into a specific positional category.
Some of the best players on the defensive side of the ball once carried the dreadful label of tweener. The list includes players such as Dwight Freeney, Shawn Merriman, Jason Taylor and Terrell Suggs.
These players now are some of the most coveted in the NFL. In last year's draft alone, three hybrid defenders were taken in the top 10. Even former Commodore Curtis Gatewood was labeled a hybrid defensive lineman last year heading into the NFL Draft. Although he went undrafted, he made the Washington Redskins Practice Squad at the start of the 2008 season.
As someone who coached Osi Umenyiora and Demarcus Ware at Troy, Logo believes Stewart has the skills to play at the next level.
"I believe Broderick's strength for the next level, if given the opportunity, is going to be pass rushing," Logo said. "He is athletic enough to be able to drop into coverage, and teams are going to love his height and speed."
For Stewart, seeing the aforementioned players, and especially Jason Taylor, succeed gives him even more confidence in his own ability.
"I look at Jason Taylor a lot," Stewart said. "He was Defensive Player of the Year, and he was only at 231 pounds. I see that weight is important, but it isn't everything. He plays fast, he plays quick and he plays smart. I think weight is important, but I play fast and if I had a choice between playing fast or powerful, I'd rather play fast."
Stewart admits that he is a long way away from being the type of player Taylor is, but the amount of improvement he has made in a short amount of time has been remarkable considering he didn't play football until the ninth grade.
"I do learn something new every day," Stewart said. "I learn something new because I have a great coach (Logo) who is always telling me to work at the things that I'm weak at. He always tells me that I can pass rush with the best of them, which is great, but that I need to work on the run."
Stewart's late start in football was not by choice. Born in Queens, N.Y., before moving to Newnan, Ga., at age 8, Stewart played soccer, baseball and basketball throughout his childhood. However, despite his begging, his mother, Marriette, did not let him play football until he left home in ninth grade to attend Riverside Military School in Gainesville, Ga.
"My mom is funny like that," Stewart said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I watched football. When I was 2 years old, I could name every NFL team just by their colors. I don't know why she didn't want me to play football other than that she was worried that I would get hurt."
Because of his late start, Stewart has improved leaps and bounds with each season, which is something that his teammates and coaches have noticed.
"He has made great strides for us," Logo said. "I think he is beginning to understand how he fits into our scheme and utilize his speed not just for pass rush, but also for the run. He brings a presence on our defense in the pass rush that definitely gives other guys some opportunities to get single blocked because of the fact that people are keying on him."
Hamilton also agrees: "He has gotten a lot better. He has always been the type of guy who is going to go all out, but now that he's got experience and gotten all of the fundamentals down, as well as the mental aspect of the game down, he is going to be a force."
Stewart, whose mother is a teacher and father (Dinsemoore) works for Delta Air Lines grew up in a working-class family with the understanding that hard work pays dividends. Because of his upbringing, Stewart's play has been especially rewarding to him.
"Coming from a hard-working family, it is just rewarding to go out on the field and have success after the amount of work I've put into it," Stewart said.
As he continues to grow as a player, Stewart certainly will begin to see teams add blockers to his side. If teams begin keying on him, Stewart believes the rest of the defense will benefit.
"If I ever get double-teamed, I will certainly respect it," Stewart said. "I feel like if they double-team me, that makes me feel even better because I know that just due to our pressure system, they don't have enough people to double team one person. If they are double- teaming me, then it is going to be a lot easier for the team to make some plays."
Through the start of the season, Stewart has shown his sack totals from the past two years as a reserve were no fluke. In the first game, Stewart registered a sack against Miami (Ohio) and through three games, he had three quarterback hurries and two pass breakups.
At the rate he continues to get to the quarterback, it should be only a matter of time before Stewart is regarded as one of the top defensive ends in the SEC.