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.