Cincinnati's Walter Stewart prepares to lead

You understand why Cincinnati defensive end Walter Stewart feels so comfortable during spring practice.

He no longer feels like a ping-pong ball.

Stewart bounced around linebacker positions when he first arrived in Cincinnati. But finally this spring, there is stability. For the first time in his career, Stewart will go into the season playing the same position for consecutive seasons. He has solidified himself as a defensive end, somebody who used his athleticism and quickness to make an impact on the line in 2011.

Now that both starting defensive tackles are gone, defensive end is a position of depth and strength going into 2012 and Stewart is a big reason why.

"I just feel like I'm light years ahead of where I was last year and the year before that," Stewart said in a recent phone interview. "It just makes playing football a lot easier when you know what you have to do instead of playing something different. It's a good feeling knowing I can come out here and not really worry about anything else."

Stewart finished last season second on the team with six sacks, and added five quarterback hurries and 11 tackles for loss in his first year playing defensive end, where he started all 13 games. But it was not until the second half of the season that Stewart really got the hang of playing his new spot, while also getting adjusted to the increased weight he had to put on to play end.

When he arrived on campus, Stewart weighed 216 pounds. Last season, he played at 245, and now hopes to add between 5-10 more pounds to his frame before 2012 begins, "so I can stay light on my feet and be able to cover."

Where can he get better? "I want to make more improvements in the run game, and be better at the point of attack," Stewart said.

Though Cincinnati has only had a handful of practices before pausing for spring break, Stewart already has caught the eye of coach Butch Jones. When asked about players who have stood out in the early going, Jones mentioned Stewart.

As for the intangibles, Stewart received the most improved leader award from his coaches this past season, and will be looked at to be an even stronger leader in 2012 with players like Derek Wolfe and JK Schaffer gone. He is more of a "lead by example" player, and will take some of the younger linemen aside and work with them one-on-one to help them improve.

He also realizes that as one of the veterans coming back, Stewart has a big role to play if the defensive line is going to be as good as it was last season. He has the most starting experience of any player returning to the front seven — having started 36 of the 38 games he has played in over the last three seasons.

"We have to set the tone," he said. "Me, Dan (Giordano) and Brandon (Mills), especially up front. We are the veterans of the group and have been here the longest, so we have to set the tone every day for the defensive line and the defense. We take pride in that."