Unlike some modern players, who prefer to avoid contact, Stephens-McQueen (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) enjoys it. That predilection, along with his quickness and instincts, makes him an ideal middle linebacker.
“Being in the middle of the field gives me the leeway to be sideline-to-sideline, to find the football and track it to the best of my ability,” he said. “And the play-calls put me in a great position to make plays. You’ve got to have a nose for the football, but also an understanding of the game … down and distance, where we are on the field.”
Stephens-McQueen is one of eight defensive starters who return in 2020. That group is determined to help improve the overall quality of the defense, which finished eighth in the 10-team Sun Belt Conference in total defense in 2019, allowing 455.5 yards per game.
He will be joined by returning outside linebackers Victor Heyward (70 tackles), Jhi-Shawn Taylor (40 tackles) and Jordan Strachan, who missed last season with an injury after playing 12 games as a freshman. Up front, the team returns steady nose guard Dontae Wilson and end rusher Hardrick Willis, the team’s sack leader.
“Everybody wants to get better,” Stephens-McQueen said. “With the talent we have, we want to actually be great instead of looking upon us like the offense is carrying the team. We’ve definitely got new leaders emerging, making us try to come together as one.”
The Panthers open the season Sept. 5 against Murray State.