- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. (AP) - Tony Steward grew up rooting for Florida State and idolizing linebacker Ernie Sims, two reasons he has the Seminoles at the top of his short list of college choices.

Florida State could land its most prized recruit in years.

Steward, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker from Menendez High in St. Augustine, is considered the top defensive prospect in Florida and one of the best in the nation.

“I’m honored to be one of the top linebackers in the state and the nation,” said Steward, on The Associated Press South Region 25 list of top recruits. “It just shows that if you work hard, it pays off and you can do whatever you want.”

Steward had 124 tackles, seven forced fumbles, five sacks and three interceptions as a junior last season. He returned two of the picks for touchdowns, showing the kind of speed and athleticism that college coaches would love to have in the middle of their defense.

Steward has received more than 30 scholarship offers from all over the country. Oregon, Miami, Southern Cal, Rutgers and numerous schools in-between are vying for his signature. Although Steward hasn’t named a front-runner, he said Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State and Miami are his top choices.

The Seminoles might have an edge, though.

“My childhood favorite, and the person I model my game after comes from Florida State,” Steward said.

Sims was one the top recruits during former coach Bobby Bowden’s tenure at FSU. Sims made an instant impact in college, playing in 13 games as a freshman. He was a starter his final two years, then was the ninth overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.

Steward believes he plays with the same aggressiveness and high energy that made Sims a star.

“I’ve got a knack for the ball,” he said.

Everyone might have to wait a while for Steward’s decision. He plans to take several visits this fall, then narrow his choices and make an announcement around national signing day.

What will be the biggest factor?

“I’ll focus on the depth they have at my position and how I feel at the school,” he said. “I want to be able to compete for a starting job in my first year.”