Linebacker Steward gives Clemson a top-10 recruiting class

Pedro Menendez (Fla.) High School’s Tony Steward, who was seemingly a lock to sign with Florida State and was viewed by many as the nation’s No. 1 outside linebacker prospect, signed with Clemson on Wednesday.

CLEMSON – Jeff Scott flew into the tiny Saint Augustine, Fla,. airport so often to recruit Tony Steward, the car rental attendants knew the Clemson recruiting coordinator’s cell number on caller ID.

The courtship paid off on National Signing Day as Steward, the nation’s top-rated inside linebacker, surprised many by selecting Clemson over Florida State.

The signings of Steward and fellow five-star linebacker Stephone Anthony vaulted Clemson into the top 10 of class rankings Wednesday. The Tigers’ 29-member group ranks No. 8 according to Rivals.com and No. 10 per ESPN. The group is arguably the most star-laden in school history. For the first time, Clemson signed four USA Today All-Americans.

Steward announced his decision on ESPNU around 11 a.m., making a difficult choice considering the pro-Florida State sentiment in his high school gymnasium.

“It was probably the longest 15 minutes I’ve ever experienced,” said Scott of the time leading up to Steward’s decision. “You think back to the first time you went by his school his 10th grade year. The amount of hours; I’ve probably spent 100 to 150 hours on the phone with (Steward’s high school coach) Keith Cromwell. That’s no exaggeration, my wife can tell you.

“After meeting Tony I knew early on he was a strong young man, kind of what C.J. (Spiller) had. If he knew Clemson is where he wanted to go he could stand up in front of that school. That ceremony he had today is something we talked about with him for the last sixth months. We even showed him a video of C.J.’s announcement. We sat down and talked with him and prepared him for that moment.”

Steward’s decision reminded some of Spiller’s surprise choice in 2006.

Like Spiller in 2006 and Clemson’s other top-10 rated class (2008) in the internet era, Wednesday’s signing crop was based upon Florida imports.

Since 2002, only four five-star prospects have left Florida for an out-of-state ACC school: Spiller in 2006, and Steward, receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Mike Bellamy on Wednesday.

Swinney credited the relationships Brad Scott had in Florida and the vigor the younger Scott for the Sunshine State success, but Swinney also credited Spiller.

“Today is not possible if not for a guy like C.J. Spiller paving the way,” Swinney said. “You don’t know how important that decision he made in 2006 was. Tony (Steward), Sammy (Watkins) and Mike (Bellamy) are three of the top players in that state.”

While Clemson lost some in-state battles to South Carolina for linemen like Marion Dukes and Brandon Shell, the Tigers were able to land Charone Peake, a five-star commitment out of Dorman who has drawn comparisons to Summerville High product A.J. Green.

Swinney credited some of the class’s best players, Watkins, Peake and Bellamy, with keeping the group together despite the criticism and negative recruiting the program endured after suffering through a losing season.

When asked about critics saying Clemson has had top classes before — six top 25 classes since 2002 — but failed to produce special seasons, Swinney said Clemson has not had a class like this since the 1980s.

Swinney called the group a “foundation” to build from. The class could also have an immediate impact.

Swinney said Watkins, Peake and Martavis Bryant all have a chance to impact a suspect wide receiving group.

Swinney said it is a “safe” to think Bellamy will play in 2011.

Though Steward is coming off December knee surgery to repair his ACL, Swinney did not rule out he and Anthony making an impact at linebacker.

Swinney also noted one of Clemson’s three quarterback signees — Tony McNeal, Cole Stoudt and Morgan Roberts — will have to back up Tajh Boyd at quarterback.

In a year of losses, Wednesday was a victory for the embattled coaching staff.

It was another display of Swinney’s greatest strength: recruiting. Of the 35 official visitors to Clemson, 29 signed letters of intent, and one prospect, Jadeveon Clowney, is undecided.

“It’s a sign we have right things in place, a sign we signed the right (prospects), a sign they chose Clemson for the right reasons,” Swinney said. “We more than met our needs, especially with the finish to day.

“This is the best moment we’ve had.”

All signs were beginning to point to South Pointe defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation’s No. 1 prospect, choosing the South Carolina over Alabama when he makes his choice Feb. 14, his birthday. However, it appears Clemson has become a contender after signing a class that included four five-star recruits.

“I took a visit to Clemson, and I actually enjoyed it,” he said in an appearance on ESPNU. “They are back in the mix a lot. They’re one of the top schools I’m thinking about ... them, South Carolina, Alabama.”

Clowney seems undecided — saying that he could see himself playing

“It makes me want to go there, too. It lets me know there are people on the team that want to win just like me, top athletes."

Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik)

CLEMSON SIGNINGS

Name Pos. Ht. Wt. School

Shaq Anthony OL 6-4 260 Wren

Stephone Anthony LB 6-3 220 Anson County (N.C.)

Isaiah Battle OL 6-7 260 Blue Ridge (Va.)

Mike Bellamy RB 5-10 185 Charlotte (Fla.)

Martavis Bryant WR 6-4 195 Hargrave Military (Va.)

Roderick Byers DE 6-4 260 Northwestern

Corey Crawford DE 6-5 275 Hargrave Military (Va.)

Cortez Davis DB 6-3 200 Mainland (Fla.)

Kevin Dodd DT 6-5 277 Riverside

B.J. Goodson LB 6-1 225 Lamar

Joe Gore DE 6-6 260 East Columbus (N.C.)

Adam Humphries DB 5-11 175 Dorman

Grady Jarrett DT 6-0 280 Rockdale (Ga.)

Ammon Lakip K 5-11 175 Chattahoochee (Ga.)

Eric MacLain TE 6-5 245 Jack Britt (N.C.)

Jerome Maybank DT 6-4 335 Waccamaw

Tony McNeal QB 6-1 190 Chester

Ryan Norton OL 6-3 275 Mauldin

Charone Peake WR 6-3 200 Dorman

Spencer Region OL 6-6 330 Cullman (Ala.)

Morgan Roberts QB 6-4 200 Country Day (N.C.)

Stanton Seckinger WR 6-5 200 Porter- Gaud

Tony Steward LB 6-2 225 Pedro Menendez (Fla.)

Cole Stoudt QB 6-4 200 Coffman (Ohio)

Robert Smith ATH 5-10 200 Woodland

Lateek Townsend LB 6-2 197 Marlboro County

Colton Walls LB 6-1 215 Latin (N.C.)

Sammy Watkins WR 6-1 180 South Fort Myers (Fla.)

DeShaun Williams DT 6-1 302 D.W. Daniel