Tony Steward came into Clemson with all the accolades reserved for the best high school recruits in the country.
He was the No. 1-ranked player at his position. He won the high school version of the Dick Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in the country. He played in the U.S. Army All-America Game.
No surprise, then, that he played right away at Clemson. But only a few games into his freshman season in 2011, Steward tore his ACL backpedaling during a special teams drill in practice. The injury was especially devastating since Steward had torn the ACL in his other knee the year before. The double-injury whammy did a number on him physically and mentally, hindering him from reaching his potential.
But Steward wants to change all that. He knows he has one last shot to make an impact. Now that he finally has won a starting job as a senior, Steward has no plans to relinquish it.
His transformation began in the spring, with the weakside linebacker job open for the taking.
"I just felt like I didn't have anything holding me back," Steward said in a recent phone interview. "I was given an opportunity and I felt like I needed to make the most of it and did everything I could in my power to make sure I didn't let myself down or my teammates down."
Steward admits he has not yet lived up to the expectations he set out for himself when he left high school. The second knee injury is a big reason why. Though he returned to the field the following season, he did not really trust his knee. He was tentative on the field, and his confidence was low.
"I feel like over the last few years, I've been able to get all that confidence back and not worry about anything at all," Steward said. "I've had bumps and bruises here and there, little strains but nothing serious. The biggest thing was getting my mind back right from my knee.
"All of that came with time. Getting out on the field, doing things, focusing on technique. The biggest thing was just the repetition, because once you do something for a long time, you stop thinking. You just do it. It's muscle memory. That's one of the biggest things that helped me out."
Fellow linebacker Stephone Anthony understood what Steward was going through. He, too, came into Clemson in 2011 as a highly-touted prospect with all eyes focused squarely on him. Though Anthony did not have to overcome a knee injury, it did take him several years to win a starting job. Now he is a preseason All-ACC choice.
The two have grown close during their time at Clemson, and Anthony has given Steward some words of advice along the way.
"There's patience that comes with it," Anthony said. "Me and him, we definitely are very similar and we both had to learn we can't live up to nobody else's expectations. We're going to put enough pressure on ourselves. We want to be great, and we just have to let it take its course."
Just last week, defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters in Clemson that Steward has done a "fabulous job" on the weak side. Steward will need to show that in games, too, as he replaces Spencer Shuey, who finished second on the team in tackles a season ago.
There is no doubt Steward will play a crucial role on run defense, and will be counted on to help slow down Georgia running back Todd Gurley in the opener Saturday. Steward embraces the chance.
After years of waiting, he is ready to be counted on every week.