CLEMSON — A little over a month ago, an eyebrow or two raised when Spencer Shuey got significant snaps in the second half of a 47-31 win over Georgia Tech.
The junior middle linebacker played well. Tackled confidently. His crushing fourth-quarter safety of Tech tailback Orwin Smith ultimately flipped momentum towards Clemson.
Still, his efforts seemed like only a temporary setback for sophomore Stephone Anthony. A five-star signee from Anson, N.C., Anthony was anointed as the starting middle linebacker and leader of Brent Venables’ defense almost immediately after Venables arrived from Oklahoma in January.
As Clemson prepares for the homestretch of the 2012 season, there seems little temporary about Shuey’s ascension. The Charlotte native has cemented himself as the Tigers’ starter in the middle. In the last three weeks, he has piled up 37 tackles, three for loss. Entering this season, he had 36 career tackles, none for loss, in 23 career games.
“Knowing we had a new coordinator (this season), I knew it was an opportunity for me to make a new impression,” Shuey said. “I knew if I worked hard I’d be able to get my shot, and I’m glad it’s actually paid off for me.”
Venables says Shuey has taken advantage of that opportunity.
“He’s been the model of consistency in front of my own eyes,” Venables said. “I’ve said this, dating back to some of our very first scrimmages back in the spring, when he’s been given the opportunity he’s performed. He’s been the model of consistency and usually the really good ones are. You need to be that there.”
Growing up in Charlotte, Shuey was a Carolina Panthers fan, and attended games with his father.
“I’d idolize all of the players, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought it was incredible they were able to go out and do what they did. I dreamed that hopefully I’d be able to play in front of people like that, and I’ve been blessed.”
At South Mecklenburg High School, Shuey played fullback and linebacker, and was also recruited as a tight end by programs like Illinois, Duke, Kentucky and Wake Forest. He chose Clemson to play linebacker, because he has the “attitude on defense to hit someone hard.”
Still, playing time under former defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kevin Steele came sparingly; 116 snaps in two seasons. Other than 30 snaps in a 2010 blowout of Presbyterian, Shuey never had more than 12 snaps in a game before this season.
That changed against Georgia Tech, and he hasn’t looked back.
“Every time they put me in there, I try to capitalize on it and show they’ve put me in there for a reason and that it’s not a mistake,” he said. “But I think that was definitely the turning point for me as far as getting more playing time.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Shuey has played “fast and physical and knows exactly where he’s going – he’s done a great job lining up and played with a lot of energy and toughness at a high level.”
Playing in the middle requires more than tackling ability; you’re the defense’s de facto leader.
You have to be physical. Intelligent. And know everyone else’s job, as well as your own.
It is an ongoing process for Shuey.
“You’ve got to set the front every time, be able to recognize formations and know the weaknesses of our defense in certain calls,” he said. “Make defensive line movement and try and eliminate those weaknesses.”
That’s all part of the job.
“I just try to do what I’m supposed to, do what coach expects of me,” Shuey said. “Execute the game plan, try and get everyone else lined up, and just try to be that leader.”
Here’s the real question: how long will his tenure last? Venables says Anthony has handled his demotion “awesome” and “with class, like you’d expect.” Over the last three games, Shuey has garnered 156 snaps to his 69, although Venables calls them “option A and option B.”
“I really like our situation,” he said. “I’ve got the proverbial great problem to have. I’ve got two really fine middle linebackers, and both of them, when they’ve gotten in there, they’ve given us a chance to win.”
With seniors Jonathan Willard and Corico Wright at the “Will” linebacker spot, there could be an opening for Anthony or Shuey to move in spring; Swinney said that’s when he thinks about his “best 11, best 22” players. He said there are no “lifetime contracts” at any position.
Shuey says he and Anthony are competing “every day.”
“I know he could do it, I know Stephone could do it and a number of guys could,” Venables said of a position move. “Going into next year, we have a chance to be better because of gained experience at the position and gained experience. Maybe shuffling a few guys around, we’ll see how it all plays out.”
For now, Shuey just keeps extending his opportunity.