Expectations high for Clemson linebackers

It’s time for Clemson fans to be reintroduced to the 2011 recruiting class -- a class that was highlighted by the two best high school linebackers in the country.

Clemson’s 2011 recruiting class drew rave reviews for the signatures of Tony Steward, the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country, and Stephone Anthony, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the class.

This could be the year Clemson’s linebackers finally make headlines again.

Steward is entering his third season in the program, but as far as defensive coordinator Brent Venables is concerned, Steward is still a freshman. Because of back-to-back ACL injuries, Steward has yet to have an opportunity to show why he was such a highly touted recruit. This year should be different -- not only for Steward, but for the entire group of linebackers, which is expected to be the highlight of Clemson’s defense this year. It’s a deep and talented group that is still relatively unknown, but could produce some household names -- and reintroduce a few others like Steward -- this fall.

“It took us a little while to get settled in, but just gaining the experience, coming back from last year, we’ve got guys that are athletic, they’re disruptive, guys who can run, strike and also have a good grasp of what we’re doing,” said Venables, who is entering his second season as the Tigers’ coordinator. “We’ve got good chemistry in that group. We’ve got good quality depth, guys that probably haven’t been on the field much, but we feel good about regardless, guys like Tony Steward and Kellen Jones.

“They’ll be the leaders on our defense,” Venables said of the linebackers. “The guys have great respect for them, they all like to work, they’ve got a good chemistry about them, as well as ability.”

Clemson’s defense must replace 2012 leading tackler Tig Willard, arguably the most consistent linebacker on the team, who had 95 stops and a team-best 10.5 tackles for loss. There are plenty of options, though, and Venables began preparing them for the opportunity last November, as he rotated at least nine linebackers for about 8-15 snaps each over the course of the final three or four games.

This season, senior Spencer Shuey returns as the team’s leading tackler, and he’s a player who quietly improved and became a major contributor last year. Shuey had just 17 tackles over the first five games of 2012, but he finished the season with 93 tackles -- not bad, considering Willard played 181 more snaps over the course of the season. Venables said Shuey is a very instinctive player who “plays faster than he probably tests,” takes the right angles, doesn’t make mistakes, anticipates plays, and is smart enough that he can keep pace with some of the more athletic opponents.

“He’s invaluable,” Venables said. “When he’s out there, we play well.”

Clemson has only six starters returning on defense, and just two of the top six tacklers return, but Venables said he is confident in the depth and talent that returns at linebacker to anchor the defense.

Anthony had 77 tackles in just 459 snaps, an average of a tackle every six plays. Senior Quandon Christian also has significant experience. He started seven games last season, and had 40 tackles in 447 plays. He was a big factor in midseason wins against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech with 14 combined tackles. The staff is also excited about Jones, a transfer from Oklahoma.

B.J. Goodson is another option from the 2011 class. He was rated the No. 29 outside linebacker that year. He is big, strong, instinctive, and can play fast. Steward has made the most of the few opportunities he has had. He had 26 tackles last season, including a team-best 12 on special teams. He averaged a tackle every 5.2 plays on defensive scrimmage plays.

“I really feel good about his improvement and his understanding and just getting his strength and explosiveness back and understanding what we’re doing,” Venables said. “I’ve had a number of guys in the years I’ve coached who have torn their knees up, and it takes one solid year to get back to whatever they were prior to the injury, and he had back-to-back injuries without ever really having any kind of foundation here in college. It’s just maturity and understanding, experience and playing, but to me he’s like a freshman. It’s unfortunate. He wanted to play last year, was the consummate optimist. But that’s water under the bridge now. Hopefully some of the experience he’s able to gain will pay off.”

Just like Clemson fans expected it would in 2011.