Linebacker Tony Steward has found himself in an unexpected situation. When linebacker Ty Powell was placed on the injured reserve with a torn ACL, Steward was called upon to fill the void.
"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemies," Steward said of Powell's injury. "But with [head coach Rex Ryan] it's next man up … I've got to get out here and get the best work I can get and make sure I'm on top of my stuff because when my number's called, I want to be ready."
Steward was drafted out of Clemson in the sixth round of this year's NFL Draft. The Bills brought him on primarily to play special teams in his rookie season. He had been running with the second team defense at outside linebacker, but with Powell's injury he's gotten the opportunity to play inside linebacker—an opportunity that he has taken advantage of.
"[Steward] had by far and away his best game this past week [against Cleveland]," Ryan said. "We've thrown a lot at this young man."
Steward has experience playing inside linebacker. Although he hadn't lined up there for the Bills before Powell's injury, he got experience playing inside in college.
"At Clemson, I guess I was considered an outside linebacker, but it was more of an inside linebacker. So transitioning here was just a little bit different," Steward said. "But having guys like Nigel [Bradham] in front of me, guys like Preston Brown, guys that just kind of help out well, just teaching you the little things that you need to know and showing you different ways to grasp the defense."
Despite having some experience at his position, learning the defensive scheme is a process. Getting into a position where he could see significant playing time on defense didn't happen overnight for Steward.
"Earlier [in training camp], it was a little bit rough on me, but now I think that since I've been in it for a little while, I'm able to get it down and I'm playing a lot faster, a lot better," Steward said. "Bobby April, my coach, is doing a good job of coaching me and helping me correct mistakes that I make. So each day I'm just trying to get better."
Steward has certainly made progress and is playing faster. Ryan has taken notice of this, saying that new responsibilities could be coming his way.
"We're going to throw some more at him, going to have him play some 'mike' (linebacker) also … So that'll set him back several days I'm sure," he said jokingly. "But it's going to be good … In this league, you've got to be able to, when you're a back-up player, you've got to be able to fix a lot of holes and that's what he has to understand, that, you know, don't feel too comfortable. You've got to make sure that you learn the defense."
Like in so many other places on the depth chart, Steward is in the middle of a position battle. He is matched up against AJ Tarpley, an undrafted rookie out of Stanford. According to Steward, the competition makes both of them better players.
"Honestly I think we push each other," he said. "We're on the field together, we're communicating and when one of us is on the field, we're rooting each other on. I think we just want to see each other do great and just having him is just an extra push."
Steward has come a long way since being drafted in the sixth round three months ago, but his journey isn't over yet. As the regular season looms, Steward recognizes he has more to accomplish than just getting drafted.
"I got drafted and it felt good, but that was just the start. That was just getting the foot in the door," he said. "Now I'm just doing what I can to make sure I stay in. So I'm just trying to work every day and make sure that I do enough to make the team and more."
With no one behind Brown on the depth chart, more is just what could be in store for Steward.
The last weekend of Bills Training Camp 2015 was complete with a morning and night practice on a sunny weekend at St. John Fisher College.