CLEMSON — Tony Steward admits it: Saturday night is “going to feel weird, different. Foreign.”
When No.10 Clemson visits No.4 Florida State in a much-anticipated top-10 showdown, the Tigers’ sophomore linebacker will step onto the floor of Doak Campbell Stadium for the first time – in a visiting uniform.
“Getting to play against them,” Steward said, “is not necessarily a dream come true.”
When the five-star prospect signed with Clemson two years ago, it surprised many – even a group of students at his St. Augustine, Fla., high school who had formed a Florida State cheering section for his announcement.
“For the most part, most of them were pretty stunned,” Steward said. “After about a second they erupted into a cheer.”
Steward grew up a Florida State fan and made many, many visits to Tallahassee during the recruitment process.
“I thought it was going to be the place I committed,” he said. “I pretty much lived there for a couple of years during high school.”
A pair of ACL tears have slowed Steward’s progress and truncated his freshman season to five games; the NCAA denied Clemson’s injury waiver request for a redshirt season because he had exceeded the game limit for a redshirt.
There were questions about whether he’d redshirt this fall, but Steward played on special teams in the first two games, and saw his most significant action against Furman, piling up six tackles in 25 snaps.
“Really, my biggest thing was to get out there, play fast, play hard and try to make big plays,” he said. “It felt pretty good being out there, and exciting to get the first snaps on defense this year. It was good to get out there and play and get a feel for the game again.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said he was happy Steward took an opportunity for success.
“Certainly there is a lot of pain and suffering, both mentally and physically, that go along with (two ACL tears). It’s not easy to overcome once, let alone twice,” Venables said. “The more he plays, the better he’ll get. He has a long ways to go. But to see him go out and have some success, by the end of the year it’s going to pay off for us.”
A pair of seniors – Jonathan Willard and Corico Wright – play ahead of Steward at the “Will” position, and with Venables’ new system, Steward is almost like a freshman all over again.
“He’s learning a new system, let alone all the injury things. Lack of experience. He might as well have just gotten out of high school, as far as I look at him,” Venables said. “Where does he go? I would expect improvement along the way with some minor setbacks. With maturation, every guy is different. It’s a process. Sometimes they play like a first-round draft pick in their first year and sometimes it takes them three years, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.
“Maybe sometimes they’re just a good college player. And they never become a ‘superstar.’ I can’t really predict. He’s a great kid, he loves to play the game, has great humility, doesn’t mind working, you can coach him hard. And he has a good perspective on where he is, what he needs to get better at. He doesn’t have this thing where he’s over impressed with himself. He’s got a good perspective on things. That allows him to grow.”
How does Steward feel like his growth process is going? In his words, “pretty decent.” He says his knee is 100 percent healthy and can’t remember the last time he had pain or swelling – he is wearing no knee braces or sleeves.
“(My progress hasn’t been) as fast as I want to, I’m still making a few mistakes, on certain calls,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve got to continue to study the defense and get into the stadium and watch the film, get a better grasp of it.”