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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs DT Spence making early impression

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Published:   |   Updated: July 27, 2013 at 09:43 AM

TAMPA - The Buccaneers finished No. 1 in the NFL against the run last season with defensive tackle Roy Miller playing a key role, holding his ground in the trenches while engaging multiple blockers.

Miller played through knee tendinitis in 2012 and signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in March, prompting the Bucs to launch a quest for the next Roy Miller.

When the fourth round of the 2013 draft rolled around, Tampa Bay landed Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence - younger, healthier and perhaps even stronger than his powerful predecessor.

Three months later, Spence, labeled "a weight-room warrior" by NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock coming out of the draft, is trying to clean-and-jerk the vacant nose tackle job away from his competition, led by eight-year veteran Gary Gibson.

"Akeem's a confident kid," Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "He's not going to come in here and take a backseat to anyone, just because he's a rookie. This guy is really powerful. He's not only physically strong, but he can generate power. He holds up at the point of attack, and he can move the point."

Spence, 21, impressed NFL scouts in the bench press at the combine, reeling off 37 reps at 225 pounds. At 6-foot-1 and 307 pounds, this dynamic fireplug has similar size to the 6-2, 310-pound Miller, who was tabbed as one of the strongest players available in the 2009 draft.

"There's not too many short guys around like me," Spence said. "It looks like they're trying to get rid of us. I'm trying to make it for the short guys in the league."

Like Miller, Spence's forte is clogging up the running lanes. If he wins the starting job next to Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, Spence figures to play the first two downs before being lifted for a more formidable pass rusher.

"First off, he's a mini-Hercules," McCoy said. "I've never been the strongest guy, but my strength went up this offseason. I'm in there lifting and Spence is lifting two racks down. He was using my heavy weight just to warm up. He's ridiculously strong, and the guy despises making mistakes."

Spence, a native of Fort Walton Beach, boasts some athleticism to complement all that sheer power.

He participated in the shot put and discus in high school and he has handled the early rigors of training camp with distinction heading into tonight's practice at Raymond James Stadium - where the pads will go on for the first time.

"After the (offseason workouts), the coaches told me I've got a chance to be the starter here, but it's not like it's going to be given to me," Spence said. "I have to show them I'm worthy of playing next to Gerald McCoy.

"The first day we put on pads will be intense. You'll see guys scratch, claw ... do what you have to do."

A month ago, Spence went to Ohio to attend the NFL Rookie Symposium, which included a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

That's where a rookie defensive tackle gained some perspective.

"I was in awe walking around the Hall," he said. "I saw the first football they used and it looked like a basketball. I saw the first helmet and I can't imagine myself going out here with a leather helmet, trying to hit somebody full speed. I probably would have broken my neck. I learned things about legends like Walter Payton and Michael Irvin, and I've probably got 1,000 pictures on my phone."

Before Spence can start thinking about NFL immortality, he has to make a name for himself in Tampa.

"I have a great chance to compete for a starting job and I'm out here to make plays," he said. "This system fits me oh so well. Being short and strong, I can get my hands on people and I'm able to knock 'em back."

It didn't take long for Spence to announce his arrival in a Bucs uniform.

At the inaugural offseason practice in May, Spence and veteran center Jeremy Zuttah had to be separated after a brief altercation. Spence said the dustup was his way of showing new teammates that he had no intention of backing down.

From anyone.

One interested bystander that day was coach Greg Schiano.

"He's physically very developed," Schiano said. "Akeem Spence may be one of the strongest guys in this league as a rookie. If he can learn our techniques, the more reps he gets, the better he'll be."

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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