Steward's time to shine?

CLEMSON – It is difficult to imagine a more physically star-crossed player on Clemson's roster than Tony Steward.

Entering his third season on campus, the former five-star signee has yet to live up to the massive hype that heralded his signing on national signing day 2011.

However, it's hardly his fault.

Steward suffered two torn anterior cruciate ligaments – in opposite knees – in just under a year's time., which seriously hampered his development.

With the 2013 season opener just under three weeks away, Steward is finally healthy and ready to fulfill his potential.

"It's awesome to not have to worry about it, have full support from everyone," he said. "Not have to worry about pain."

Steward's last few football seasons have been defined by pain. In the final game of his high school career, he tore an ACL and played through the pain, getting surgery in December 2010.

He played 36 snaps over seven games as a freshman, making three tackles – but during a routine practice in October 2011, he ruptured the other ACL while backpedaling during a practice.

"It was (tough) mentally, oh, man," he said. "It was terrible. Almost heartbreaking. But it was easier to go through because I had already been through it and knew what to expect. I honestly got back faster on the second one."

Clemson petitioned the NCAA for a redshirt season but it was denied since Steward had played in seven games, three more than allowable for redshirts.

Steward played in all 13 games as a sophomore, but only seven on defense, with 73 defensive snaps and 26 total tackles. But all of those snaps came in blowouts, and it was clear that he was missing a step. Wasn't quite himself. It makes sense, really: unless you have the superhuman healing powers of Adrian Peterson, ACL injuries typically take over a year to fully recover from.

Steward is now 22 months removed from his second ACL tear, and this marked his first full healthy offseason of training, lifting and running, as well as his first healthy spring practice.

"I definitely feel a whole lot healthier now," he said. "I pretty much have no injury now. It's nice."

That's an unfamiliar feeling, for sure.

"The last time I felt this good was early in my junior year of high school. Nothing nagging me or anything," Steward said. "That's how it is now. It's awesome."

Steward says his change of direction – a key for any linebacker – is "100 times better than it was."

"If you look at me, you wouldn't be able to tell there's a previous injury," he said. "It's a big confidence-booster."

He also feels far more comfortable in his second season in Brent Venables' defense. A year later, Steward knows the terms and verbiage far better, something that was an issue last fall.

"When I first was in the scheme, I wasn't too sure," he said. "It took me a while to catch on, but I definitely think it (fits me). It's a really good scheme. And he tells us all the time, this is a team built for linebackers with the calls we make. Linebackers should make most of the plays. That's definitely awesome."

Steward is currently working behind senior Spencer Shuey at "Will" linebacker, but appreciates the arrangement.

"It's awesome to have someone like Spencer in front of me to know the level that I have to play at and just be consistent at," he said.

"Obviously we work together all the time and help each other if we need help. If one person forgets the call, we'll remind each other. It's a good relationship."

Following two tough years, just being healthy is good enough.

"There's no injury, nothing for me right now to worry about except football, and in a few weeks, school," he said. "I think that's the only thing that's driving me."

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