Starting A Rookie In The Middle: Can You Handle The Sus-Spence?

By Jeremy Hritz

Back in March, the Steelers brass were out in full force at the University of Miami Pro Day. In attendance were Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Keith Butler. While it was uncertain at the time which player they were targeting, it has now become clear that linebacker Sean Spence was their focus.

This past week, both legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau along with linebackers coach Butler offered some very high praise for the rookie for his efforts in OTAs.

LeBeau stated, “I do like our draft choice. He\’s done everything any first-year player could do in coaching sessions without pads. I think we\’re in the right direction there.” However, the comments made by Butler were the most intriguing: “I wouldn’t say he’s not going to play. The fact of the matter is, since I’ve been here we’ve never had a rookie play or start for us as a rookie.” While Butler did not come out and say that Spence would be a starter at one of the inside linebacker positions, the fact that he is acknowledging that possibility speaks volumes about their belief in his ability and potential.

The 3-4 defense of LeBeau is often characterized as being overwhelmingly difficult for young players to understand and learn, yet Spence, according to his coaches, is showing a proficiency in picking up the complex schemes and concepts. Butler commented on Spence’s football intelligence and called him a “very sharp young man” and that “he is picking up our system as well as anybody at this point.”

Spence could be the exception to the Steelers unspoken rule that linebackers sit a few years before assuming a starting role. The last player to start as a linebacker for the Steelers in his first year was Kendrell Bell in 2001. Bell was selected in the second round from Georgia and went on to earn NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors while playing under then defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. While training camp has not started, and coaches have not seen Spence in full contact yet, his success at Miami and his quick study at OTAs have been noticed to the point where his name and the word “start” are being used in the same sentence. Spence proved to be disruptive at Miami where he collected 47 tackles for loss in addition to 10.5 sacks. This would be a welcomed force in the middle for the Steelers defense.

The safe assumption is that Spence will be a role player this upcoming season. However, if he continues to impress his coaches moving forward as he has already done, there could be a chance for Spence to work his way into the starting line-up at some point this season. If he does develop to that extent, it would be exciting to see how his athleticism would enhance an already formidable linebacker corps.

The Steelers defense will be younger this year, and with Spence now having a chance to earn a starting spot at some point, it could get even younger. While a single game has yet to be played in the 2012 season, there is buzz-a-plenty surrounding several of the Steelers draft picks. Will Spence join the company of David DeCastro and Mike Adams and be penciled in as a starter for the new season? Time will tell the story the closer we get to training camp when we truly get to see what the draft class of 2012 is all about.

  • Jfishel

    So who does he beat out? ILB is manned by Foote and Timmons. He is not beating out Timmons, and though Foote is getting old he is in line to play the Buck position. In other words, he is there because he will be stuffing runs and he knows the defense like the back of his hand. Spence cannot do any of that. If he gets on the field, it will be in obvious passing situations. He’s a 3rd and long linebacker for now, and only on certain plays. His biggest splash this year will be on special teams.

  • SteelersDepot

    I believe Jeremy stated that the assumption is that he will be a role player initially. If he starts at all, it would be at the BUCK spot later in the season after having an even firmer grasp of the defense and depending on the play of Foote. Week one starter? No. Week 12 starter? Depends.

  • dkoy85

    I’d love to see Spence progress enough to start later on in the year. The thought of him and Polamalu flying around the field really makes me excited!

  • SteelerDave

    I think he has a chance to spell Foote on about half the 3rd down situations where it is more likely to defend the pass. Foote is a solid run stuffing BUCK but is now aging to where his cover skills of today’s tight ends are sub par. Spence has speed and excellent instincts.

  • Suckmynuts

    Spence is one hell of a football player. Period. Sometimes height means nothing. Just watch his Miami games, then make your opinion. I think he starts this year.

  • Harold

    People need to take into account that our 3-4 defense is evolving to combat the spread-type offenses. We don’t line up a traditional Mack and Buck side by side as often anymore, or ask them to do the same tasks as before. I could see Spence playing a lot of snaps against Baltimore as a full time “Ray Rice Rover”, leaving Timmons alone in the left middle, and Troy roaming the middle right (or vice versa). I also saw a clip of Butler mentioning the possiblity of moving Timmons to Buck. He’s bigger and stronger and faster than Foote. If Spence can assume the captain/play-caller role, I think we’ll see a very quick transition to Timmons (Buck) and Spence (Mack) with Foote and Sly backing them up respectively.

  • Pete

    I’m excited about Spence as well but he’s not going to start. Butler also said about OTAs, training in shorts is a “beauty contest” and therefore he has to see what Spence has to offer once the hitting starts. With everyone healthy, Spence is not going to start. I think from what has been said by the coaches we can agree he will get some snaps this season. He could be used in an emergency if there are a number of injuries at the inside postition. Yet it is encouraging to Steelers fans to hear praise about him at this point.

  • JohnnyV1

    Comments from Kevin Butler after the draft were that Spence would backup Timmons. Given his size and play-making ability, to me, that’s his best spot in the 3-4 defense. Injuries can play a role in things as we saw Timmons slide over to ROLB last year. In that case, Spence could play on defense, otherwise he’s on special teams only for his rookie year.

  • RC

    With the word from the beginning being that Spence is seen primarily as a Mack LB I see him starting this year as a difficulty to harmonize only if essentually what you said happens. And that is if Spence will start it would be with Timmons taking over the Buck LB spot. If Spence can man the Mack position I would be all for that and would be very excited to see it happen. Personally, that is what I am rooting for.

  • Jprankster2005

    Is there any chance after this season if Sylvester doesn’t take over the Buck position for good, Timmons could become the Buck and Spence be the Mack? And hopefully Worilds is the heir for Harrison and we have a pretty nice LB core……. I just wonder if anything has been said about maybe having Timmons take over there…… Spence would be a good Mack but don’t think he would do good as Buck

  • Jprankster2005

    I just posted asking if anyone has heard anything in that exact refernce of Timmons moving to Buck and Spence play Mack…… So it has been mentioned I think we could have one hell of a LB core if that were to happen…… And also if Worilds can actually pan out to be the heir to Harrison we could have a good set of LB’s for atleast the next 5 yrs…..

  • Jprankster2005

    I would like to see that happen as well…… If he impresses in preseason that could be exactly what happens……. And if it successfully happened they could cut Foote but I don’t think they will just because he can be useful in case of injuries but if he doesn’t start they could always make him take a pay cut to stay…..

  • Jprankster2005

    yes I agree……. I would love to see the 2 on the field together…… They would have QB’s not knowing what to think haha

  • LJ

    Thats how iam playing it on my madden

  • Jprankster2005

    You think he will play at Buck, I figured they would move Timmons into that role and have Spence play Mack…… But we all wanted a Buck back drafted and all and all I think we got one of the best LB’s in the draft…. 3rd round I think was a steal for this guy……

  • Jprankster2005

    The last sentence about how the 2012 draft will pan out…… I think this has been one of the best drafts easily We got a top 10 to 12 guy fall to us at 24…. We got a projected late 1st rounder fall to us late second…… We got I think one of the Best LB’s in the 3rd….. Picked up hopefully our future NT in middle of the 4th…… Got probably one of the fastest RB late in the 5th, That I think we mess with alot of defenses when he is on the field especially if they line him up as a reciver…. Picked up probably our 5th reciver in the 7th that will hopefully be a good Redzone reciver, Possibly a TE but wouldn’t count on it. And maybe another young body on the OL…… This draft I don’t think could have went any better…… I would of liked a good TE early on but what we got I’m very sastified with…… Next yr. we will probably focus on Safety in first LB, CB, and def. TE and probably another Reciver….. and if those picks pan out we will be set for a good while…… I also think they should look into getting Ben’s replacement in the next yr. or 2 so Batch can finally retire and we have a quality guy to take over when Ben’s days are done…..Good Article

  • RIP

    Spence is the anti Ray Rice, he will cover him out of the backfield and anywhere else he lines up. Spence is smart and has the quicks to make decisons on the run. A lotr like someone else on the team

  • Jfishel

    Right. I don’t dispute that Jeremy is saying that. But I don’t see who he beats out in his first year, regardless. Week 1 or week 17.

    I don’t imagine you trust that defense to a rookie playing the buck in the playoffs, do you? I just don’t see it. Too many expectations for a mid round pick in a defense that doesn’t play rookies very often. Maybe I’m wrong about how often rookies start by the end of the year, but barring injury I don’t see his playing time increase a lot. Maybe some increase in pass coverage packages.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Everyone settle down here…the guy has yet to put on pads even…he is a small guy and Im quite sure he will be pushed around till he gets more stronger and heavier…its great to hear he is picking up the defense quickly but lets hope he can play ST so he can make the team first!

  • SteelersDepot

    lol. He’s going to make the team.

  • SteelSpine

    It’s the title of the article that sorta implies rookie Spence has a real chance to start in the middle this year, but I agree with Jfishel. Not even in week 17 this year beating out our knowledgable other ILBs, it would take a rash of injuries to them.

    I thought Sylvester was being groomed to be a starter. I know this thread isnt about Sylvester but this is the right number of years on bench to should be ready to step in in-place of too-slow Foote. Also Sylvester was tackling everywhere when he got a chance to start in preseason, & Sylvester makes alotta tackles on special teams, implying he has instincts. But maybe LeBeau knows something problematic about Sylvester that I & no fan sees.

  • Jprankster2005

    yes he is def. going to make the team, He’s a 3rd round pick and is pretty good at what he does, And just with his potential that he has he will make the team….