Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs' nose tackle Spence knows how to grind

TAMPA

For the dirty-work position at nose tackle, you do not build a player all at once.

Before you get to the gloriously wide smile and thick biceps of Akeem Spence, for instance, you must first know about the shy kid with the heavy accent. You must know about the boy who stood in the shadow of his father.

He was 6, fresh from Jamaica, and the other kids could not understand him when he spoke. So he didn't speak much. He faded into the back of the group.

Then, his father, Floyd, told him about this game called "football."

And a personality was born.

Oh, it wasn't always easy. At the age of 8, the older boys that Spence played with roughed him up pretty good, and there were tears, and Spence wanted to quit. No, his father said. Quitting was not allowed.

So the boy stuck with it, and in the sixth grade, he started to move iron around a weight room. That changed Akeem Spence, too. It shaped him, physically and mentally, until it became his identity.

Say hello to Akeem Spence.

You know, the Bucs' new nose tackle.

"I just want to come in and play that nose position," said Spence, 21. There is no longer a hint of an accent. "I want to try to earn a starting role and add to what the linemen who are already here do."

His dad taught him that, too. At Illinois, Floyd was the first person Akeem called after games. It was Floyd who kept telling Spence to focus, to chase his dreams. After all, it was just the two of them growing up. (Spence's mother, Karen, moved to London when he was a child, although the two remain close.)

For an NFL newcomer, the rookie minicamp is a dizzying weekend, with so many people shaking your hands and so many suggestions of how you go about your business. For fans, it's a matter of faith and doubt, and with most middle-round draft picks, there is plenty of room for both. He is strong, but is he explosive enough? He has played in a lot of games, but has he made enough plays?

The first thing you notice about Spence is those huge arms of his billowing out of his sleeves. They are comic-book biceps, pro wrestler biceps, the biceps of a thousand beads of sweat in the weight room.

In high school, at Fort Walton Beach, Spence was a state champion lifter. He still takes it seriously.

"The weight room — that's where I make my living, man," he said. "Anytime you don't see me in the locker room, you'll probably find me in the weight room trying to get stronger."

The question with Spence is how much he can apply that strength to his football play. At Illinois, he didn't always use the best leverage, which is one of the reasons he was still there in the fourth round.

"I hear it, but I don't try to pay attention," Spence said. "I'm weight-room strong, but I feel like I take it to the field real well. Sometimes people don't understand it's the scheme. With me being so strong, sometimes people expect me to grab the blocker and throw it into the backfield. But at the same time you're still playing football. You've got to pay attention to the scheme."

The Bucs paid attention. They want to Spence to play the nose, over the center, at an angle. The "tilt" position, as it were, which is designed to get a player into the backfield quicker.

Over the offseason, Tampa Bay let starter Roy Miller go in free agency. Yes, they have some holdovers with Gary Gibson and Derek Landri (signed from Philadelphia), but make no mistake, the Bucs would prefer for Spence to win the job. "We didn't take him to watch," is the way Bucs coach Greg Schiano puts it.

Illinois didn't, either. Spence started 38 consecutive games and left after his junior year. That's a lot of football.

"Tampa Bay is going to love him," former Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "I think he's going to get better and better as he plays. He's a big, physical guy, and he has a great work ethic. His father was a bricklayer, so he grew up knowing about hard work.

"If he ever got in trouble, I'd just call his dad. He didn't want to mess with his dad. His dad kept a pretty tight leash on him. His chores were done before he got to do the extracurricular stuff."

By now, you have heard the reports. Spence is primarily a run-stuffer who doesn't offer a lot of pass rush. But Spence is a perfect fit for the Bucs. If he can penetrate and disrupt, that's a fine start.

And if not?

Well, Schiano could always tell Spence's dad.

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