Noah Spence hoping NFL teams rip up red flags

RICHMOND, Ky. -- Feel like the NFL draft takes forever to get here? Noah Spence is right there with you. If the calendar had a fast-forward button, the former Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky pass-rusher would be leaning on that thing, speeding time along until the moment an NFL team finally calls his name and lets him start stomping these past two years deeper into the trash bin.

"Who would like this?" Spence asked, 30 minutes into yet another interview about getting kicked out of the Big Ten for two failed drug tests. "Who would like to talk about it? It's part of me, you've got to do it, but it's not something I love to do. It's almost like me putting myself down every week. But shoot, I made my bed. I've got to lay in it, you know?"

The lumpy pre-draft bed Spence has made for himself is stuffed with everything that's negative about the draft process. Once a high school superstar special enough to be the first five-star recruit to commit to Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Spence finds himself in the difficult position of convincing a team to draft him not "because" but "in spite of."

The "becauses" should be Spence's story. This isn't even a player who'll enter the league in the drug program. He's 6-foot-2, 251 pounds and knows how to bring down a quarterback. He had eight sacks as a sophomore at Ohio State in 2013 and 11.5 this past season at Eastern Kentucky. He has the kind of natural pass-rush ability that teams crave, and had he stayed at Ohio State and developed and dominated, he'd likely look like a top-10 pick later this month.

But the "in spite ofs" have become the issue. Spence tested positive for Ecstasy late in the 2013 season, which got him suspended for the Orange Bowl and the first two games of 2014. He tested positive again, for the same drug, in 2014, which got him suspended from the Big Ten permanently. He sat by himself and watched on TV as Ohio State won the national championship.

"It hurt," he said. "I watched it. The whole thing. But it hurt. Who wouldn't want to be there?"

Meyer told Spence he'd likely be picked somewhere between the third and fifth rounds if he had entered the 2015 draft, so instead he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky. With Meyer's counsel, Spence figured a year of building back up his stock was the way to go. Meyer set him up with an old friend of his, Dean Hood, who was the coach at Eastern Kentucky last year. Spence is still in touch with Meyer, who calls from time to time to make sure his spirits are staying up.

"Obviously, people still have their doubts," Spence said. "Somebody's always going to critique something because they need something to look down on. But I feel like, the further I get away from my past, it's going to be easier for people to trust me off the field."

A year later, it's still not as easy as he might have hoped.

Three coaches who worked with Spence at Ohio State -- two of whom have moved on to other places -- declined comment for this story. That could be coincidence, but it also could be a sign that Spence stands as a source of frustration, possibly even embarrassment for that program. He was supposed to be great there and his own behavior derailed him. His old coaches likely don't want to do him any harm by dredging up bad memories from the past.

Spence also didn't help himself when, last May, he was arrested on charges of alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct for an incident in which he tried to throw a glass bottle into a garbage can and it missed and shattered. That incident was expunged from his record, but that doesn't mean teams aren't asking about it. Perception is an insidious thing.

"I've seen some people talk about how it was a DUI," Spence said. "I wasn't even driving. I've never had a DUI."

The battle to regain trust goes on. The saying goes that you don't need 32 teams to fall in love with you -- just one. But as Spence looks for that one, his road isn't as easy as his talent should be making it. Background discussions with NFL decision-makers during the past couple of months haven't led this report to expect Spence to get taken very early. More than one has said Spence hasn't dazzled in interviews (possibly because the topic of his past feels stale to him). An assistant general manager said he believed Spence would need a team with a strong support system to get the most out of him -- a tired cliché you often hear about players who enter the league with question marks due to past misbehavior, but one that teams nonetheless use as a reason to pass on a player for a prospect they consider "cleaner."

A couple of people have said, "He's no Randy Gregory," and in totally opposite contexts. One person meant it to indicate that Spence's past drug issues were a one-time thing and not likely to continue into his pro career. Another meant it as an unflattering on-field comparison to the Cowboys' pass-rusher.

"I thought he'd jump off the tape more than he did," one coach said. "He's obviously talented, but I thought I'd see a guy that just jumped through the screen at me. He didn't."

This is the part of the pre-draft process that makes you feel dirty -- NFL types who won't attach their names to their negative critiques. You can take it with as many grains of salt as you want, but it's naïve to think this kind of chatter doesn't affect a player's draft stock. Spence is doing what he can to fight the negative perceptions of him, but they persist, and they will -- at least until he takes an NFL field.

"Once the scouts started coming around, I'm sure he's told his story 1,000 times," said Jon-Michael Davis, the Eastern Kentucky strength and conditioning coach who bonded with Spence during his year there. "I've done more interviews about this young man than I've ever done trying to get jobs. But he does not hide. Scouts asked him questions, and he told them everything that happened. He never hid behind anything. He took ownership, he manned up and I admire him for that."

Part of Spence's case is that he's been humbled. Walking onto campus as a highly recruited freshman in 2012 was not the same as walking onto Eastern Kentucky's campus as a transfer.

"It was real humbling to come to a place where we've only got, like, one sideline," Spence said. "Just smaller stuff. You have less stuff. I had like one pair of cleats all season."

As opposed to?

"Whenever you want, you can get a pair," he said, recalling his Big Ten days. "I don't know. It was just real humbling and it just made you realize everything can be taken away. Here, they don't really look at football as big as they did at Ohio State. Here, you've got to play for the love of the game. So it showed me that I really do love this game a lot."

Another part of his pitch is what he put on film at EKU. Knowing his pure athletic ability likely would allow him to beat Ohio Valley Conference tackles simply by running around them, Spence endeavored to incorporate three pass-rush moves per week so that the film would show that he had them. He knew scouts would view any numbers he put up in the OVC with some skepticism, so he had to offer something that would impress. He continues to work on technique.

"I want to get my spin down," he said. "I've been watching Dwight Freeney's spin move. It's beautiful. But I get in a game and I'm kind of still raw to it. I want to put that in my game. Other than that, I'm good with my hands. I've got a lot better this year watching Justin Houston. Watching his film, I feel like I've gotten a lot better with my hands."

In pre-draft interviews with teams, Spence is likely at his best when he's talking football. He grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, an Eagles fan whose favorite player was Trent Cole, but he also says he liked watching Michael Strahan and those Giants' Super Bowl defensive lines. He enjoyed watching pass-rushers before he knew he'd be one -- something about a mean-looking dude crouched in a four-point stance waiting to uncoil some violence against the quarterback.

But before he can get to that, the interviews have to wind through the not-so-fun stuff.

"They ask me, 'Do I still do drugs?'" he said. "They ask me what I do to occupy my time now. But it's not like I have anything to hide. I feel like the coaches ask people stuff and wait for them to lie about it. But I mean, there's no way I could lie about anything I've done. Anything I've ever done is already in the open."

Spence doesn't consider himself an addict. He says he took Ecstasy as a party drug, on the weekends, "maybe a couple of times a month." Says he hasn't taken it in two years. Says he was sent, as part of the fallout from his positive tests, to meetings where he listened to addicts tell their stories and, while those were eye-openers, his story was not even close to as far gone as the ones he heard.

He will not enter the NFL in the drug program, as would someone who tested positive at the combine, for example. His positive tests are far enough in the past that they don't count against him. As for how he occupies his time now, he says he's a homebody who's into cooking his own meals and staying in. He likes to prepare Mexican dishes, and he dabbles in soul food.

"I'm not too good on greens yet," Spence said.

Once a week, his agency sends a drug tester. Spence pees in a cup and his agents send the results to all 32 NFL teams, to show he's clean. He's fine with it.

"It's part of me. It's a part of my past," he said. "Everybody has a past. Mine's just more in the limelight because of where I want to be, in the NFL. I want to be a really good football player, and I feel like that comes with the territory. Everybody's going to put you under the microscope."

Understanding that doesn't make it fun. The pre-draft process can be a rough one for any prospect, as teams spend months looking for holes to poke and warts to expose. When you have a past like the one Spence has, it's far worse.

But he's owning it. He's wearing it. He's out for visits in April and dealing with it all over again. He has his answers ready. He's certain he's done with drugs forever, though he knows the only way he can prove that to anyone is to live the rest of his life as evidence.

Once someone drafts him, he gets to start doing that. Once a team picks him and brings him into its offseason program, that's when Noah Spence finally gets to start writing his next chapter. Really, nothing he's done for the past year, nor anything he can do in the next few weeks, could change the way teams and the public are inclined to look at him. The only thing that can is actually getting drafted and getting to work for his new NFL team, whichever one it may be.

Which is why he can't wait.

"Whoever picks me is going to get a relentless player that's hungry," Spence said. "And whoever doesn't is going to see."