Seniors Chubb, Stewart having vastly different seasons

Both defenders had high expectations after passing up NFL Draft

NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb’s draft stock has improved thanks to his dominant senior season. (Rob Kinnan / USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH/CHAPEL HILL — Bradley Chubb and M.J. Stewart both passed up the chance to enter the NFL Draft by going back to school for their senior seasons. Each made their decision for similar reasons, to complete some “unfinished business.”

That, however, is where the comparison ends.

Because while Chubb’s return to NC State has been exactly what he hoped, Stewart’s experience at rival North Carolina has been a disappointment of epic proportions.

The silver lining for Stewart is that his team’s dramatic lack of success hasn’t adversely affected his individual draft stock. He’s still considered one of the top cover corners available and is projected as a second- or third-round pick.

Chubb, on the other hand, has catapulted himself from the middle or bottom of the first round to potentially one of the first five players selected with a dominating performance that has already produced 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss — a total that ranks second nationally.

As impressive as those individual statistics might be, the number that means the most to him is the six straight wins the Wolfpack has put together since an opening week loss to South Carolina, a streak that has done as much to enhance State’s national stature as his own.

“The sky’s the limit for this team,” Chubb said. “That’s the main reason I came back, because I knew we weren’t done. It’s just good to see things coming to fruition.”

Chubb’s best moments this season have come in his highest profile games.

He recorded seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in a 27-21 win at Florida State on Sept. 23, an effort that was somewhat overshadowed when he celebrated by spitting on the Seminoles’ logo at midfield.

The 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end shifted the focus back onto his play two weeks later when he outshined Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in a nationally televised Thursday night victory against Louisville.

Chubb set the tone that night by sacking Jackson on the game’s second play. He punctuated the 39-25 victory by blocking an extra point, much to the delight of a packed house at Carter-Finley Stadium that included a group of State students that expressed its admiration for him with a few splashes of body paint.

It was the kind of moment Chubb envisioned last January when he sat down to discuss his future with Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren.

“We talked about finishing what we started. That was one of the factors,” Doeren said of a season in which Chubb posted 10.5 sacks — the third-highest total in school history — but the Wolfpack lost four games by a touchdown or less.

“There was a lot of factors. I guarantee you, seeing the student section paint their bodies with ‘Chubb for Heisman’ made him feel good. That was pretty awesome. He’s playing so good, the students love him. He’s a cult hero right now and he deserves it. He’s playing his butt off.”

UNC cornerback M.J. Stewart breaks up a pass intended for Virginia wide receiver Andre Levrone during Saturday’s game at Kenan Memorial Stadium. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

About 20 miles to the west in Chapel Hill, Stewart is too. The 6-0, 205-pound defensive back has recorded 23 tackles and two sacks to go along with a team-leading eight pass breakups, bringing him within three of the school career record of 35.

Unlike Chubb, though, his efforts have gone largely unnoticed as a member of a defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the ACC in virtually every statistical category.

“To be real, it’s not what I pictured my senior season being,” Stewart said Saturday. “But that’s the game of football. Anything can happen.”

Stewart led UNC with four interceptions as a sophomore in 2015 on a team that won 11 games and the ACC’s Coastal Division championship.

Although he tied for the league lead with 18 pass breakups last year, he was disappointed by the fact that he failed to pick off a pass. That and the way the Tar Heels finished the season, with three straight losses, weighed heavily in his decision to postpone his entry into the NFL.

“It was another year of college football and having fun with my brothers or living out a childhood dream,” Stewart said before the season started. “It was really tough. (But) I didn’t want to end my college career with zero interceptions. I decided I wanted to come back and end on a bang and make people remember who I am.”

That bang has turned out to be more of a whimper.

Stewart’s season is best summed up by a single play in his team’s latest disheartening loss. With the Tar Heels trailing by six midway through the fourth quarter, he scooped up a Virginia fumble near midfield and took off in the opposite direction.

But just as it appeared he was on his way to a go-ahead touchdown, the play was whistled dead because his foot touched the sideline as he scooped the ball up. UNC ended up losing 20-14 to fall to 1-6 overall, 0-4 in the ACC.

As disappointing as the situation might be, Stewart hasn’t let his disappointment show.

“He’s kind of the heart and soul of everybody right now,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s the guy that’s the leader, the one making sure everybody’s staying positive, everybody’s staying together. He’s doing a tremendous job.”