Safe road to stardom

Jim Martinho

Even before Stuart Schweigert finished his freshman season, the Purdue public relations department knew it had to take action as soon as possible.

Purdue’s sports information director, Tom Schott, registered the internet domain name in 2000, and now Purdue football fans (and Schweigert’s personal cheering section, the Stu Crew) have a way to follow the All-Big Ten free safety from the comfort of their own homes or dorm rooms.

Although the Web site’s intent is mainly to promote Schweigert for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy and the Jim Thorpe Award, it also features interactive polls, photos and Stu’s News & Views, Schweigert’s weekly update on himself and the Boilermakers.

A recent poll on the site offered fans the chance to vote for their favorite one of Schweigert’s school-record 12 interceptions. His game-saving pick in overtime against Minnesota last season won with 36 percent of the vote, edging his record-breaking pick against Western Michigan on Sept. 14. In clinching the record, Schweigert broke a tie with six other players, including 16-year NFL great Rod Woodson.

“To be on top of a list that includes a guy like Rod Woodson means a lot. It’s not like it’s a shabby list,” Schweigert said after breaking the record. “Now I just want to keep building on it. Just because I broke the record, I don’t want to stop at that. I would like to take it to a whole new level.”

But Schweigert’s impact on the Boilermakers’ defense has gone far beyond interceptions. Watch the speedster for just a few sets of downs and it’s clear he’s not simply playing centerfield, waiting for errant passes. He flies to the ball and has led Purdue in tackles in each of his first two seasons, an achievement he brushes off.

“I’ve been the leading tackler, but that’s a result of the way our defense operates,” he said. “We blitz a lot and use a lot of man-free coverages, which leaves me open to make reads on the ball.”

Schweigert credited Boilermakers’ defensive backs coach Ken Greene with teaching him how to read the offensive line to get a jump on the offense.

“If you have a safety in a man-free coverage, and he’s just backing up looking at the quarterback and trying to read the running back, he’s not going to get downhill as much as he would if he read the line,” Schweigert said. “What I do is read the lineman that’s not covered. If he leans forward, most of the time you know it’s a run, and if he stands up, you know it’s a pass. That gives me a little bit of a head start. It has been a big part of me making a lot of tackles.”

Boilermakers fans have gotten used to seeing No. 9 lead the defense. One of three true freshmen to start for Purdue’s conference-leading defense in 2000, Schweigert racked up 85 tackles and five interceptions and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. In 2001, the first-team All-Big Ten selection preserved two victories with interceptions in the final minute and finished the season with 98 tackles and six picks.

After playing in every game of two injury-free seasons, Schweigert missed the 2002 season opener against Illinois State with a knee injury. He has had to play in pain all season.

“I’m 85- to 90-percent right now,” Schweigert said. “That’s something I have to deal with and just play on. You need to have the mindset that you’re better than somebody and shut them down.”

Schweigert, an organizational leadership and supervision major, said he needs to take what he learns in the classroom and apply it on the football field.

“I need to step up more as a vocal leader,” he said. “During this offseason, there have been about five of us who have kind of stepped up our leadership as far as doing everything the coaches ask, not complaining, and telling the other guys how to do things.”

Schweigert’s teammates and Purdue head coach Joe Tiller are satisfied with his leading by example.

“His mentality to figure out what the opponent is doing is so good,” said linebacker Niko Koutouvides, Schweigert’s roommate. “His coverage and the way he comes downhill and plays the run is just amazing.”

Tiller said his defensive stalwart for the past three years hasn’t shown signs of slowing down.

“He’s a little bit like fine wine,” Tiller said. “He’s getting better with age.”