By Ed McGranahan.
Thus begins the Curious Case of Tony Steward.
When he signed last year, Steward was generally considered the top linebacker prospect in the nation. Inside, outside, didn’t matter. Steward was a playmaker, a game-changer on defense.
Though he played a modest role in five of the seven games in 2011, Steward was near becoming a critical piece. Stephone Anthony had begun to steal time at middle linebacker, and Lateek Townsend was getting a taste on special teams. Clemson’s future at linebacker with these three ultra-talented freshmen was off the charts.
Steward’s season ended Oct. 18 when he tore an ACL in practice followed by the second surgery on his knees in a year. Clemson petitioned the NCAA for a medical redshirt. Apparently those token appearances against Virginia Tech, Boston College and Virginia Tech were too deep in the season. The petition was denied.
By all accounts his recovery and rehabilitation from surgery went well, and in late July, Coach Dabo Swinney said Steward had worked through the summer relatively free of pain without braces.
“He is in a better place mentally than he was at any point last year from a confidence standpoint,” Swinney said. He further described Steward as “very engaged, very hungry.” That same day, somebody whispered that new defensive coordinator Brent Venables was considering a redshirt for Steward.
All things considered, it made sense. Venables inherited three starters at linebacker in Corico Wright, Tig Willard and Quandon Christian plus top sub Spencer Shuey. Anthony would be the starter in the middle and Townsend’s playmaking potential was too hard to ignore. Plus, Venables had another budding talent in B.J. Goodson, who took a redshirt last year. In fact, rising junior Justin Parker agreed to accept a redshirt this year.
Swinney reacted as if a redshirt for Steward was inconceivable.
“We need all those guys we can get. This isn’t just a player, this is a great, great player,” Swinney said. “He’s Tony Steward. Nothing has change. He’s a special player.”
Throughout camp it was the same story. Steward was running third team at wide side behind seniors Willard and Wright, a sticky wicket in itself with Wright the guy Anthony displaced in the middle after two seasons as a starter. Swinney continued to say Steward was a critical piece. Venables, while insisting he didn’t have enough players, didn’t budget.
Redshirting is a relatively informal process. It can come anytime within a five-year window.
There’s no paperwork, no need for formal declarations. There aren’t even red shirts.
It’s almost mystical.
If a player doesn’t get on the field and he has a year available then – poof! — he’s had a redshirt season.
If a coach declares today the intent to redshirt a player then runs him onto the field in October – poof! –the redshirt is gone.
So Tuesday, when Venables was asked, he repeated that a redshirt for Steward was “still on the table.” But 48 hours later Swinney said Steward would begin the season on special teams, not at linebacker, implying it was never “on the table.”
Swinney disagreed with the suggestion that Steward’s diminish role might result in another wasted season, using that lame argument that special teams was one-third of the game.
One wonders if there’s more at play than Swinney’s wishes or Venables’. Perhaps Steward took it out of their hands. He will be eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft if he plays or not this year, but Swinney may feel obligated to give Willard and Wright every opportunity to succeed in their final seasons at Clemson.
Or, maybe, they’re hedging bets that Steward’s talent will eventually assert itself and it may become more prudent to play him.
“I know Tony Steward is a five-star recruit and all that, but he’s got to go earn it,” Swinney said. “He’s a rolled ankle away from playing a lot at linebacker.
“We’ll need him to win.”