<
>

Rookie Noah Spence poised to make impact for Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht called him the "best pure pass-rusher in the draft," and there's hope Noah Spence can one day blossom into one of the best in the NFL.

For now, the focus is on absorbing as much as he can in training camp and Thursday night, when the second-round pick will make his preseason debut in Philadelphia.

Spence will play nickel defense when veteran Robert Ayers moves inside and then the rookie can do what he does best -- lining up at right defensive end.

"You ask any of our O-lineman -- that guy's lightning off the edge," head coach Dirk Koetter said.

Quarterback Jameis Winston called him "amazing." Donovan Smith saw it back in college at Penn State when Spence was at Ohio State and the two squared off, and he sees it in practice during one-on-ones.

"His speed and his bend. I don't think I've ever seen him go down," Smith said.

That's what Spence was brought in to do, and if training camp practices serve as an indication, he should contribute right away. But he won't be playing every defensive snap. Right now, Spence is more of a pass-rush specialist, and he'll use his quick first step and his hands to get after the quarterback.

"Noah, by standards, is an undersized defensive end, but I think he plays a lot bigger than his measurable," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "He has a very good short punch, and he understands leverage, and he's got quickness. He can move and run around blocks at times and make some plays, and he's also got strong enough hands and punch that he can hold the point.

"We're going to have to be very careful about what we're going to ask him to do early on in the season."

In other words, the run stopping might come a little later on. It's a work in progress.

"My first couple of days, I didn't know what was going on with the run, it was all moving so fast," Spence said. "Now, it's starting to slow down a lot more for me. I'm just lining up in the right spot and things like that, being able to hold my blocks."

At 6 foot 2 and 250 pounds, Spence wins with quickness and his lower-body flexibility when rushing the passer. But against the run, it becomes a lot harder with the size game, and that makes technique paramount.

"I've just got to stay under people; I've got to use more leverage since they're always going to be bigger, taller than me," Spence said. [I've] got to get under them and try to just be more stout."

Smith likes to mix up his defensive fronts and use a number of defensive sub packages that can call for different body types.

"I think it's realistic, if [Spence] continues to progress, he's going to have an opportunity to play a whole lot of snaps. I don't think that we have 11 starters, we don't think of that," Smith said, instead preferring to look at his defense with 15 or 16 starters he can rotate.

The bottom line -- Spence is in a position to make an impact right away on a defense that hasn't finished in the top 10 in sacks since 2009. So far, the coaching staff has been pleased with his progress heading into the first preseason game.

"[He's been] solid every day," Koetter said. "Every day the kid flashes. For a rookie, he hasn't hit any slump days, so to speak, where he's had an off day. Every day he flashes; he's got a nice motor, [and] he pushes himself hard."

It's what you'd expect from a player some talent evaluators felt was a top-five talent heading into the NFL draft but who fell because of character concerns stemming from failed drug tests at Ohio State. Spence said he is playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

"I mean, you've got to do it, you've got to have a reason to come out here and work," Spence said. "Mine is for God and then after that it's all I've been through. Then, it's just coming out here and working with other guys on the team. You've got to play with a chip or else you'll be no good."

He pushed himself hard before he got to camp with twice-daily workouts, doing on-field work and sometimes lifting with Gerald McCoy and Kourtnei Brown at the facility in the morning. In the afternoons, he'd go to a private facility and do sand work and lift, sometimes twice a day.

"I don't feel like, after practice, I'm extra winded like I would be," Spence said. "And just staying out here and getting used to the heat. Being from Pennsylvania and everything, I wasn't used to this when I got down here," Spence said with a laugh, noting that he'll lose up to 15 pounds of water weight in practice. "It definitely helped me, staying around here for the whole five weeks that we had off."

Thursday night's game will be right in Spence's hometown, and his phone has been active.

"My whole family is from Philly. I [was] born there. You've got, like, 50 to 100 dudes trying to come to the game," Spence said with a laugh. "I've got to narrow it down, but we're going to see. It's been blowing up, for sure!"