Trajan Stephens-McQueen plans to use his voice, as well as his physical skills, to help improve the quality of the Georgia State defense next season.
Before the cancellation of spring practice, Stephens-McQueen had become a new vocal leader for the Panthers. The team’s top tackler in 2019 embraced his role of increased leadership and was eager to become a guiding force on defense.
“We’ve definitely got new leaders emerging, making us try to come together as one this year,” Stephens-McQueen said then. “After taking a backseat to Ed Curney (who graduated), it’s my last year, and I’m having to be the voice, talking every practice and being the one who brings the energy from the time we get here until the time we leave. And I’m loving that the guys are following me and supporting me fully, and I’m loving the senior experience.”
The Charlotte native was a backup at inside linebacker during his first two seasons, but blossomed as a junior. He led the team in tackles (110), falling only six stops short of the single-season record set by Joseph Peterson in 2015, and had 8.5 tackles for loss. He ranked fifth in the Sun Belt Conference with 8.5 tackles per game.
Stephens-McQueen’s best effort came on a rainy night against Army at Georgia State Stadium. He set the school record with 20 tackles, 10 of them solo stops, and was named Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week. It was one of four games in which he had double-digit tackles.
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.
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