When Steelers linebacker coach Kevin Butler first met Sean Spence at the NFL combine, he told him that “no rookie linebacker comes in and starts. They work their way in on special teams.”
Butler reiterated that on draft day after the Steelers had selected Spence in the third round.
At 5-11 3/8, 231 pounds, Spence wouldn’t compete to replace James Farrior because “the buck linebacker has to be a little bit bigger and take on the guards more,” Butler said, adding that Spence will have to play special teams because “he’s not going to start at mack linebacker over Lawrence Timmons. That isn’t going to happen.”
So why was Steelers special-teams coach Al Everest muttering on the sidelines about the possibility of losing Spence to the starting lineup the same way he had lost another rookie, Patrick Willis, when Everest was the special-teams coach in San Francisco?
During spring drills, Spence had replaced an injured Stevenson Sylvester as the backup buck linebacker behind Larry Foote, and the buzz coming out of the Steelers’ linebacker meetings was that Spence was a true student of the game. He took the right notes and asked all the right questions. He was eating whole the complexities and nuances of a position Farrior claimed had taken him years to master.
Spence’s interception that day at Heinz Field had turned the defensive coaches’ buzz into the special-teams coach’s mutterings.
After the practice, Everest was asked to go on the record about Spence.
“Well, basically, right now, he’s doing everything. He’s doing a great job,” Everest said. “It’s all a part of football; wherever he can serve the team best. He’s a good player. He’s a good player. He’s smart, he pays attention, he listens and he applies. He’s a very impressive young man, I can tell you that.”
So impressive that Butler actually moved Spence from the “no rookie linebacker comes in and starts” camp to the “we’ll see” camp after that spring dress rehearsal at Heinz Field.
“We’ll see,” Butler said. “He may not start, but he’s probably going to get some playing time, like Lawrence did and like LaMarr [Woodley] did. They got playing time as rookies, but weren’t starters.”
It’s just that the Steelers are so impressed with Spence’s beautiful mind. That’s probably the reason they gave him Farrior’s old No. 51 the day Spence reported.
“I think I’m just blessed with it,” Spence said of his instincts. “My dad was a coach, so I guess it has to do with growing up under a coach and understanding the game and looking at the game in a different way. He coached me coming up as a kid in Bunche Park in Miami. He coached me up and I just learned from him.”
Spence played for his father, Samuel Spence, as a kid growing up in inner-city Miami and again at Northwestern High. Dad was an assistant coach and his son was the leading tackler for a team that won back-to-back state titles and the mythical USA Today national championship his senior season.
Spence and several of his Northwestern teammates then headed for the University of Miami where Spence’s football IQ was noticed immediately and he became a four-year starter.
Spence missed three games with a knee injury his sophomore year and was suspended for the opener of his senior season because he had accepted impermissible benefits. But that was the only trouble the inner-city bred linebacker had ever experienced.
“I had both parents, a steady home,” Spence explained. “They took great care of us (five children). I worked for everything I got. They brought me up well.”
In Spence’s first start for Miami, he scored a touchdown against Florida State on a 7-yard interception return and made 10 tackles. He finished the season as the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. As a junior he was the Hurricanes’ MVP, and as a senior he was named captain and was voted to the ACC first team. Spence was the first Miami player to record 100 tackles in consecutive seasons since his mentor, Jonathan Vilma, and is one of only six Hurricanes to have accomplished the feat.
But there were – and still are – questions about Spence’s size. And he’s football-savvy enough to understand why those questions are really concerns that he won’t be able to take on blocks in the NFL.
“I know what the problem is,” Spence told reporters at the combine last February. “Sometimes I get so caught up with trying to see what the running back is trying to do, I take my eyes off the offensive linemen. And by the time I put it back on them, they’re already up on me, so [it’s a matter of] just using the proper technique and making sure I’m defeating the offensive linemen first.”
Concerns over Spence’s size appeared to be the reason Butler had dismissed him as a candidate to replace Farrior at the buck position on draft day.
“I wouldn’t call him a buck, no,” Butler told reporters.
But as Butler continued to talk, he appeared to open the door for Spence at the position.
“We cover our linebackers up pretty good,” Butler said. “We let them scrape and run to the football a little bit more instead of coming downhill and taking on isos. The day of the iso with the middle linebacker is almost gone. Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don’t. A lot of stuff today is misdirection and trying to fool you or outnumber you one way and then give you a different look coming back the other way. A lot of that requires the ability to read from the linebackers nowadays, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes you have to do it on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back. But we’re taking on Ray Rice. We’re not taking on Jerome Bettis.”
Later, when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin met the media to recap draft weekend, he said of Spence, “We are going to teach him the inside linebacker position, both positions, and see where that leads us.”
With Spence, that normally leads to the ball. Like the spring day at dress rehearsal when he intercepted yet another pass – and made the special-teams coach wonder if he was going to lose yet another star-crossed linebacker.