HEBRON — Now, Eriq Stewart is 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, so it almost requires a suspension of disbelief to hear him say he was once one of the smaller players.

“When I was playing down at PAL (Fairfield’s youth football league), I was kind of small. I always kind of got thrown around a little bit,” Stewart said. “My dad just kept pushing me and pushing me and kept me in the gym working hard. I just sprouted up out of nowhere. Now defense is just my mentality.”

A two-time all-Pine Tree Conference defensive tackle while playing for Lawrence High School, Stewart is practicing this week as a member of the East team, getting ready to play in the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl.

The annual all-star football game to benefit Shriner’s hospitals kicks off at 4 p.m. Saturday at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford.

Stewart started for two years on the Bulldogs’ defensive line, helping to anchor a defense that allowed just over 10 points per game over the last two seasons.

“Eriq is just a real solid, physical player. He’s very difficult to block,” Lawrence head coach John Hersom said.

As a junior, Stewart made 75 tackles and his nine sacks led the PTC. As a senior, Stewart had 52 tackles and five sacks. Each season, he was among the conference leaders in tackles for a loss, Hersom said.

“We weren’t asking our team to be an attacking-style defense, but (Stewart) knew he could be aggressive and get upfield when the opportunity arose,” Hersom said.

Added Stewart: “I like to rush the quarterback. I’m a bigger guy. I like to see if I can move, see if I can get around you. I like to stuff the run too. Play in the dirt, get dirty, you know?”

Stewart said much of his success comes from the Lawrence coaching staff. The coaches would break down film so well and explain the concepts so clearly, that Stewart never felt lost or confused. Proper technique was an important focus of a typical Lawrence practice, Stewart said.

“The biggest thing for most high school kids is staying low, keeping your pad level down. That way you’re not getting injured in the knees,” Stewart said. “That way, you’re not getting moved off the ball. That’s something Coach (Jake) Rogers and all the coaches have really stressed to us.”

Hersom said Stewart has an instinct for the game. Stewart never freelanced and left his teammates vulnerable, Hersom said. Rather, he had a sense of how a play was going to develop and got himself in position to make a tackle.

“He has an instinct that you don’t often coach. He has a sixth sense,” Hersom said. “He has an instinct to recognize and get himself into position to make those plays.”

Nothing is as indicative of Stewart’s ability as his play in big games. In the final three weeks of the 2012 regular season, Lawrence played their three rivals for the top spot in the league. Against Cony, Stewart had two sacks in a 27-6 win. The next week at Brunswick, Stewart helped contain Jared Jensen, the top runner in the PTC. Jensen was stopped for a loss or a 1-yard gain 10 times in a 34-7 Lawrence win.

“Those were just hard-fought games,” Stewart said.

In the regular-season finale against rival Messalonskee, the Bulldogs held the Eagles’ strong running game to under 4 yards per carry in a 21-0 win.

“He’s such a good athlete, he could handle playing against those different styles,” Hersom said of Stewart.

Stewart’s favorite style is to play one-on-one against a lineman and see who wins the battle on each play.

“If a double team comes, then it comes. You have to work through adversity, but I like to play straight up man-to-man. If you can beat me, congratulations, and we’re going to go back at it next time,” Stewart said.

Saturday’s Lobster Bowl will be Stewart’s final football game. He said he’ll miss Friday nights at Keyes Field.

“(Fairfield’s) a big football town, but everyone’s behind you 100 percent,” Stewart said. “Everyone backs you up. In my opinion, I wouldn’t want to play for any other program.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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