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Nov. 1, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - Not every football player can make an immediate impact on his team.
Some have to wait their turn. It's one thing for coaches to tell a backup player he must always be ready to step in; it's quite another for that player to keep working hard through the disappointment to improve.
But that's what Spencer Shuey did. In his fourth season in the Clemson program, Shuey finds that his effort has been rewarded. He will start his third game at middle linebacker when the Tigers play at Duke Saturday.
"Honestly, my preparation wasn't any different than when I was second team or third team my previous years," Shuey said of his first start, which came against Virginia Tech. "I always prepared like I would play every snap. So I prepared the exact same way I had the previous weeks. Once my number was called I was able to step up."
Recruited out of South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, Shuey took a redshirt his first year at Clemson, then hardly played during his freshman season. As a sophomore, he was a standout on special teams (19 tackles) and backed up at middle linebacker.
Under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables this season, the Tigers switched from a 3-4 defense (three down linemen, four linebackers) to a 4-3 (four down, three linebackers). In the first six games, Shuey saw some snaps as the backup to Stephone Anthony.
But during that sixth game, against Georgia Tech, the coaches gave Shuey a longer look. He played 24 snaps and made seven tackles. After a bye week, the staff put him with the first unit. In his first game as a starter, Shuey made 15 tackles, the season high for any Clemson player.
Coach Dabo Swinney said the change was made purely on performance.
"(It was) just how he played in the Georgia Tech game," Swinney said. "We thought he played great in that game. We try to reward performance around here, hold these guys accountable weekly.
"It's been good because I think Stephone has responded. But Spencer has followed it up now with a couple good ball games and is playing really well for us."
Shuey added 10 tackles in Clemson's win against Wake Forest, giving him 32 over the last three games. He now ranks third on the team with 49 tackles this season.
Waiting his turn wasn't easy, but Shuey never wavered in his commitment.
"I pretty much just tried to take it one day at a time," he said. "It obviously was a little frustrating, but the hard work that I put in during the seasons and the off-seasons, I'm glad it finally paid off for me.
"There would be times (I would be discouraged), but then I'd push the next day and try to get better, try to be the best I could. I wasn't positive I would ever get a chance but if that day did come I would have to be ready and show them they could put their trust in me and give me more opportunities."
Earning the trust of the coaches is important for any position, particularly middle linebacker. Shuey knows it well and understands what's required there.
"Every play I've got to set the front and make the checks," he said. "I definitely think that the middle linebacker is considered to be the quarterback of the defense and I take pride in that.
"I definitely like the responsibility. I like knowing that everyone can count on me and rely on me and that's why I take my preparation each week so seriously. It's a lot of fun for me, and the way we've played the last couple of weeks, it's a lot of fun for everybody."
Swinney said Shuey was always a good football player but in his first couple of seasons was at a position where the team had a lot of experience. But Shuey's constant striving to improve - at practice, in the film room, in the weight room - made an impression on the coach.
"He's a fourth-year guy, really smart, really understands what we're doing," Swinney said. "He's gotten his body in great shape and is playing very fast. A lot of that is confidence in the knowledge of what we're doing."
Shuey said his best attribute is his knowledge of the responsibilities and what's expected of him at his position.
"I see myself as a solid linebacker, someone that hits hard and is able to recognize formations," he said. "My weaknesses are probably in the coverage area. I want to continue to get quicker and a little faster and more consistent with everything."
Duke is one of the schools that recruited Shuey but this will be the first time Clemson has faced the Blue Devils since he's been there.
"He's a good football player (who) fits what they're doing," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe. "He has performed well."
Shuey said Duke has a versatile offense with speed and "some great playmakers. They do a little bit of everything, from screens to all different types of runs and different routes."
The Tigers have put up a 7-1 record this season and are ranked 10th by the Associated Press and ninth in the coaches' poll. They are 4-1 in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. The goal, of course, is to make the championship game in Charlotte and defend the title they won last year. They will need some help, since Florida State owns the tiebreaker by virtue of beating Clemson earlier this season.
Still, anything can happen down the stretch of a football season. And returning to play a title game in his hometown is something Shuey would cherish.
"It was awesome last year," he said. "I had a lot of friends and family that were there and it would be amazing to be able to do that again this season.
"We have to take it one week at a time, one day at a time, and all we're worrying about now is preparing for Duke. Once that's over we'll move on with the next week. We have to focus on what we can control and not worry about other things."
Having won a starting position with his diligence, Shuey isn't about to take it for granted. He understands he could lose it if his performance slips. But Swinney sees no reason the junior can't keep it up.
"I've seen a lot of guys that their best years were their junior and senior years," Swinney said. "To me that's the way it should be. Guys should be improving, getting better.
"Spencer Shuey is one of those guys that has developed nicely and got an opportunity this year. He stepped up and has taken advantage of it, earned the trust of his coaches and teammates. He's performed very well, very well."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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