By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
Just a few weeks after beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Clemson defense took a few hours to go back and watch the 2012 season opener against Auburn. It was a fun experiment, but one in which they wanted to see exactly how far they have come in Brent Venables’ scheme.
“It was a chance to study ourselves and give us the different looks to see how we look in the defense,” middle linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “It was a good chance to learn from it and go.”
Defensive tackle Josh Watson said they really wanted to close their eyes while watching the game. Auburn ended up with 374 total yards and ran for 180.
“It was like ‘Wow! We were really that bad the first time at the Georgia Dome,’” he said. “We have really come full circle. I said in some interviews early in the year, we were not going to look as good in the beginning of the year as it is going to look in the end.
“I think we pulled through with that and became a better defense and stepped through the door a little bit and showed we can compete at the top level.”
By the end of the year, the Clemson defense did more than step through the door, it knocked it down. The Tigers dominated LSU’s offense for much of the night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, holding the SEC Tigers to 219 total yards, while sacking the quarterback six times.
The defense got better as the season went along, and it was no coincidence it started to turn once the linebackers start to improve. By midseason, the Tigers were getting major production from Spencer Shuey, Tig Willard and Quandon Christian.
Though he was still coming into his own, while he learned what Venables expects from his linebackers, Tony Steward was taking note on how Willard was doing things at weakside linebacker.
“He has such a high motor,” Steward said Monday. “He was all about positioning and playing with his eyes and having good pad level.”
Steward has taken those things he learned from Willard and has applied them to his own game.
“You just have to play with your eyes,” the junior said. “It isn’t really anything different than anything I played before. In high school, I mainly played WILL, but I also helped out wherever I needed to be. It is a little more different than high school, obviously, so you have to be a little more disciplined with your eyes.”
Finally playing at 100 percent on both his knees, the Hastings, FL native is ready to have that breakout season Clemson fans have been hoping for since he shocked the country in 2011 and signed on to be a Tiger.
“I feel good,” he said. “Having my feet wet in the system and having a foundation has helped, but you have to keep learning.”
Steward, now weighing 230 pounds, is one of several linebackers at Clemson that seems to fit the part more than ever before. Besides himself, Anthony is at 246 pounds and is projected to start at middle linebacker. Then there is Spencer Shuey, who led the team with 93 tackles. He is projected to start at weakside backer, while Quandon Christian is back to start on the strong side.
Let’s not forget about Kellen Jones, B.J. Goodson and T.J. Burrell.
“We look at (the lineup) every day,” Steward said. “We are pretty excited about our group. We will just have to see what happens.
“But, I like it. I feel good being outside and playing with the fellas.”