|by David Hood|
Steward and Stephone Anthony were two of the crown jewels of the 2011 recruiting class, and the hope was that the two playmaking linebackers would play side-by-side for at least three seasons before heading to the NFL.
Steward came to Clemson as one of the most highly-regarded recruits in Clemson history, and with good reason. Following his senior season, he was a USA Today First-Team All-American, and was rated as the No. 13 player overall and No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation by Rivals. He also won the high school version of the Dick Butkus Award in 2010 as the best linebacker in the nation.
However, he suffered a torn ACL late in his senior season at Pedro Menendez High School, and the coaching staff at Clemson decided he had healed enough to let him attempt to play his freshman season in 2011. Five games and 36 snaps later, he tore his ACL during practice, and his freshman season was lost.
Anthony has gone on to become one of the conference’s best linebackers and will be on the radar of many NFL scouts this season, while Steward has battled injuries. Last season, Steward was finally healthy but had to play behind senior Spencer Shuey.
This season, Steward will battle the hard-nosed Ben Boulware for the right to play, but through it all, Steward has never sulked and never complained, and head coach Dabo Swinney says that Steward has proven to be a man in all phases of his life.
“He comes here and gets five games into his freshman year and then he’s hurt again,” Swinney said. “So you miss two whole springs in a row and you have a setback from that. I am proud of him. That is my answer. He is a man. Tony Steward – who knows what will happen for him in football. He is a full grown man and has a toughness to him that you don’t see many people have. He has persevered. He has had to go through a lot and he has come through it. He has come out of it stronger.”
Swinney said that Steward has never stopped working, even while playing as Shuey’s backup.
“I am proud of his work ethic and I am proud of where he is mentally and physically,” Swinney said. “It does your heart good, to be honest with you, to see a guy claw and fight and persevere. Then he is fully healthy and then you have a guy like Spencer Shuey who just isn’t going to give it up. But he is good and has been doing a good job out there and this is a big opportunity for him. “
Steward told TigerNet back in March that while the journey hasn’t been easy, he hopes it’s his time.
“It’s been a pretty tough journey,” Steward said. “But you have to weather the storm, you know? Whether this time is my time or somebody else’s time, I am just lucky to be here and enjoying my opportunity. I want to make the most of it. Hopefully, I can make it my time.”
Steward has now played a grand total of 276 snaps during his Clemson career, and even won Special Teams Player of the Year for his efforts last season, but he wants more. And this might be the season he gets to show he can still make plays.
“Definitely. I came here to be more than just a special teams player and to contribute more to the defense,” he said. “Hopefully this is the year I can take that step. I’ve stepped up as a leader and hopefully I can continue that and be what my team needs me to be. Every aspect of my game needs to improve. I think everything needs work and there is room for improvement. I just think I have to continue to work on the details, the little things like technique.”
David Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org