CLEMSON, S.C. — Sometime next week it will dawn on hundreds of highly recruited college freshmen they’ll never play a down of football this season.
Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey, one-time star at South Mecklenburg High, wants those kids to know how lucky they are to redshirt.
“It may not seem like it now, but you’ll be thankful for this one day when you look back,” said Shuey, a graduate student in his final season of eligibility.
“You’ll realize you didn’t waste a year just playing special teams. It’s definitely better to concentrate on yourself, to get stronger and faster, and then you’ll get the chance to excel.”
For Shuey that chance took a long time; 31/2 years into his tenure as a Tiger he made his first start, at home against Virginia Tech. He blew up the Hokies that day, with 15 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and Clemson won 38-17.
Now he’s an established starter – the Tigers’ top returning tackler with 93 in 2012. He has completed his business degree, having twice made the ACC Academic Honor Roll. And he’s playing for eighth-ranked Clemson, which opens at home against fifth-ranked Georgia on Aug.31.
“He’s willed himself into the player he is now,” said second-year Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “I’ve never had to ask him to do something twice.”
Venables was coaching at Oklahoma during Shuey’s first three seasons, so he doesn’t know why Shuey didn’t play more. It was obvious within weeks of Venables’ arrival that Shuey was the sort of quick study he needed to turn around the defense.
“He picks things up a lot quicker than some guys,” Venables said. “He kept answering every question in our unit meetings. Finally I had to say, ‘You’ve got it, Spencer. Now give someone else a turn.’”
Shuey would like a chance to play in the NFL, but he’s in no hurry to rush on to the next step. That’s the lesson in his past four years:
For every Sammy Watkins, the wide receiver who starred for the Tigers as a true freshman, there are 10 Shueys: A player good enough to earn an athletic scholarship, but still a long way physically and mentally from playing right away.
Shuey was a star on South Meck’s football team, most valuable player on the baseball team and a letterman in basketball. A good student, too, he had a handful of choices among major-college programs in the Carolinas.
It became clear during his freshman preseason that a redshirt was coming. That made sense, but it was still an adjustment.
“It’s definitely a shock, coming from a senior in high school, where you’re top dog,” Shuey said. “It’s up to the coaches to decide when you’re ready to play. Unfortunately for me it didn’t happen until late in my junior year.”
That became an occasional distraction – the feeling he was getting lost on so talented a roster. He played 29 games for the Tigers, mostly on special teams, before ever getting a start.
“There are definitely some days when you get down and say, ‘That day will never come.’” Shuey said. “You’ve got to push that aside and think, ‘I’ll get better today and I will get my shot.’ It’s about proving they can trust you.”
He haunted the film room. As much game video as the Tigers watch in groups, Shuey supplemented that with three sessions – each lasting 30 to 60 minutes – on his own weekly.
He discovered the issue wasn’t just time watching game video, but understanding what to look for.
“I’d never really watched film to the extent we do here. As a freshman, you basically watch it as a spectator instead of breaking it down,” Shuey said. “As a senior you catch up on all the little keys, the formation tendencies.”
Shuey’s strength is he’s a technically sound tackler. He’s still learning how not to be fooled by play-action fakes, not to get caught rushing up-field in what become passing plays.
One of the things four years at Clemson taught him is smart football isn’t hero football.
“Playing smart is not trying to do someone else’s job. It’s understanding your responsibility,” Shuey said. “It’s studying film – it’s definitely an advantage when you sense what offensive play is coming. You get a jump on the ball when you know where it’s coming.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell