CLEMSON - Tony Steward opened with a chuckle, recalling a happy memory of high school. The last game of high school, specifically. The last time he started a football game.
Then the senior weakside linebacker grasped for words - the right words to sum up his feelings about four years of patience in between hearing his name announced with the first team.
"Being the first person out on the field, and . just kind of starting the game off fast and enjoying it ." twice, Steward's voice trailed off.
"I just can't wait to get out there and show everybody what I can do."
Steward has scars on both knees from tearing the ACL in each of his legs. Yet here he is, 31 games but zero starts in his college career, ready to make it 32 and one.
"Honestly, it's just a sense of relief that I'm still able to play football," Steward said. "To start is awesome, but it's more being able to go on the field and do what I love to do."
That's one of five prime redemption stories Clemson can tell this Saturday. Steward, defensive end Tavaris Barnes, offensive guard Reid Webster, running back D.J. Howard and quarterback Cole Stoudt have appeared in a combined 152 games in college. Only three starts, though: two by Howard and one by Barnes; Steward, Webster and Stoudt have never started.
All five are listed as the top man at their position on No. 16 Clemson's depth chart entering Saturday's 2014 season opener at No. 12 Georgia (5:36 p.m., ESPN.)
"I'm excited for them," Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said. "It's great to see guys hang in there, persevere, continue to grow and get better each year."
Obviously, college football beckons transition; there are new faces every year, and oftentimes it's a longtime backup who finally reaches the top line.
Those five seniors have different tales to tell. Steward's was just told. The 2010 High School Butkus Award winner as the nation's best prep linebacker, Steward tore one ACL in high school and the other one on Oct. 18, 2011.
Barnes has waited his turn behind the likes of Andre Branch, Malliciah Goodman and Vic Beasley. With Corey Crawford suspended for the Georgia opener, Barnes becomes Beasley's bookend, at least for one night, though he shined in the intrasquad spring game with five sacks.
"Especially Tavaris and Tony, they put so much work in this offseason," senior DeShawn Williams said. "Tony, the knee problems he had, and Tavaris, he finally took that step to show he can be dependable. He had a wonderful camp. I'm ready to see him turn it on because it's game week."
Webster works out at all five offensive line positions, but with a lack of offensive tackle depth and guard David Beasley sitting out alongside Crawford, Webster expects to get the nod just over Eric Mac Lain as starting left guard.
"I guess I had to step up," Webster said. "We lost a couple seniors that were really good, and we're short a couple guys. I had to put a little more effort into it, and I think I've done that."
Howard is the veteran of a young tailback bunch, and with Zac Brooks out for the year with a foot injury, the clear longtime leader. He'll get the first batch of carries.
And Stoudt? Well, he inherited the job from Tajh Boyd and played keep-away from freshman Deshaun Watson all offseason. But that story's well-worn by now.
Then throw in Mac Lain - who expects to split time with Webster - starting cornerback Martin Jenkins, right guard Kalon Davis and wide receiver Charone Peake as more Tigers who are finally getting their chance to shine.
"Just be ready to play," Peake said. "You can't think too much when you're out there. I know I still get butterflies. But after that first snap, I'm ready to go."
WORTH THE WAIT
The following Clemson players have been patient; now they're in line to play major roles this season
Tavaris Barnes, sr., DE: 34 games, 1 start
Kalon Davis, sr., RG: 36 games, 8 starts
D.J. Howard, sr., RB: 36 games, 2 starts
Martin Jenkins, sr., CB: 38 games, 7 starts
Eric Mac Lain, jr., LG: 26 games, 0 starts
Charone Peake, jr., WR: 29 games, 4 starts
Tony Steward, sr., LB: 31 games, 0 starts
Cole Stoudt, sr., QB: 22 games, 0 starts
Reid Webster, sr., LG: 29 games, 0 starts
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