JoVanni Stewart makes unexpected start at linebacker for West Virginia vs. Youngstown State

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson was mum all week about what he was going to do with the absence of linebacker Charlie Benton.

Benton was ruled out for the season after injuring his knee against Tennessee, which hurt depth at a position that was already as thin as tissue paper.

Gibson went with a 4-man front on five plays against the Vols and used Morgantown High alum Shea Campbell for the rest of the snaps, but he never said what he was going to do against Youngstown State.

“I just got to the point where I didn’t want to say anything to anybody,” Gibson said. “We wanted them to have to find JoVanni.”

With a week of game prep, Gibson decided to slide safety JoVanni Stewart inside to Sam linebacker and as coach Dana Holgorsen said, “It was just about getting the best 11 out there.”

Stewart moved from Bandit to Spur safety, but with Dravon Askew-Henry manning Spur, the coaching staff wanted to find ways to get Stewart out there. It came at the expense of Campbell and redshirt freshman Exree Loe, but Gibson made sure Campbell knew this wasn’t a punishment.

“By no means am I giving up on Shea, but this was a good time to get JoVanni some reps and I told Shea that after the game,” Gibson said. “We’re gonna need both of those guys going forward to be able to get what we need out of that position.

“But a lot of the game plan tonight was made for JoVanni and it was just to get him some good reps.”

Linebacker isn’t anything new to Stewart, who played there at Katy High in Texas. But in major Division I football, his size certainly doesn’t fit the mold. At 5-foot-8 and 191 pounds, Stewart was easily the smallest linebacker to see the field for the Mountaineers.

“We didn’t want David (Long) to be the shortest linebacker in the country,” Holgorsen joked. “JoVanni makes David feel like he’s much bigger than he actually is.”

Holgorsen praised Stewart for playing well, finishing with two tackles and one for a loss.

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