CLEMSON — Look at him, and you’d never know.
Watch Tony Steward glide over the FieldTurf that covers one of Clemson’s practice fields, with smooth movement and cutting ability.
He wears no knee braces, not even a sleeve.
From a distance, you’d never know that the Tigers’ sophomore linebacker is coming off his second anterior cruciate ligament tear in as many years, and as many knees.
As Clemson begins the grind of preseason practices, Steward is healthy and competing – a positive sign for a defense which will need his contributions this fall.
“I have all the confidence I had before,” he said Monday. “That’s why I forget about my knee. I had a brace before, and now I have no brace. I had a sleeve for it, but the sleeve slides. I had no use for it.”
When Steward chose Clemson over Florida State on 2011 national signing day, it was a major boost for a defense which badly needed linebacker talent. The five-star prospect was considered, along with classmate Stephone Anthony, one of the best linebackers ever to ink a Clemson national letter of intent.
However, he was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in his senior season at Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla.; Steward played through the pain and had a postseason surgery.
When he reported last summer, Steward was still in his recovery period (typically six to nine months), which left his learning curve in Kevin Steele’s system slower than others. He admits now that he “wasn’t 100 percent, but was trying to help the team out.”
He played 25 snaps in the first two games, but didn’t play in the next two, fueling questions of a redshirt.
Steward got playing time in the next three games, and coaches felt he was on the cusp of regaining his pre-injury form.
In mid-October, his season abruptly ended during a routine punt drill. Steward ruptured his healthy ACL, finishing his year almost before it had a chance to begin.
“I was just backpedaling on a punt (drill), planted to change direction, and it just snapped, I guess,” Steward said. “Probably wear and tear.”
Following surgery, the physical part of rehab left more of a strain than the mental aspect.
“It was tougher than the first time,” he said. “Emotionally, it didn’t do anything for me. (It wasn’t fun) not being able to play and practice, but with the physical part, it’s a long process. It takes time, you’ve got to be on it every day. That’s the toughest thing.”
In late May, doctors cleared him to resume full football activity, and he sweated through summer workouts with his teammates, working to pick up new defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ system.
“I felt pretty good about it, doing everything with team,” he said. “I wasn’t holding back from anything. It was good to get back on my feet and start doing everything.”
Now, Steward says his knee is feeling good, “almost 100 percent,” and he’s practicing without limitations.
“My speed, it’s not completely back but it’s getting back,” he said. “It’s getting there.”
He’s currently working as the third-team “Will” linebacker behind seniors Corico Hawkins and Jonathan Willard, who are fighting for the starting role.
He’s also working lighter – after playing last season at 242 pounds, he’s down to 232, per Venables’ request.
This spring, Venables noticed Steward performed well in his meetings, but wondered how well it would translate onto the field. Early on, his fears have been assuaged.
“He’s moving really well, has a good solid understanding of what his responsibilities are, what his alignments are, what his keys are,” Venables said.
“He’s been in good position on the football. He knows what he’s doing. He’s not lost. I’ve been happy for him. It looks like he’s feeling confident. No lingering physical affects right now.”