TAMPA — Akeem Spence grew up in Fort Walton Beach watching the Bucs' glory days and modeled his game after their Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp.
But by trading up to secure Spence, 21, the Illinois junior defensive tackle, in Saturday's fourth round of the NFL draft, Tampa Bay made it clear he's more likely to be a starter now than a spectator.
General manager Mark Dominik believes Spence, a strong 6-foot-1, 307-pound lineman, could make an "instant impact" and has a "chance to go in there right away day one and be a starter."
With veteran starter Roy Miller departing to Jacksonville via free agency, Spence could be his replacement at the tilted nose tackle spot, which is why the Bucs traded their fourth-round pick (112th overall) and a sixth-rounder (181st) to Oakland to move up 12 spots to select him.
"We didn't use that pick for him to watch," coach Greg Schiano said. "We want him in the mix and competing. We think he is tailor-made for what we do defensively. That's why we went to get him. We felt strongly that we think he's going to do things we need done at that position. I'm thrilled he's in our defense."
Spence, coming off of a junior season in which he had a career-high 72 tackles, said he knew the Bucs were interested in him since the NFL combine. But, after not getting selected on Friday's second day, a disappointed Spence said he broke down. Then he got a sizable "sigh of relief" on Saturday.
"When I got the call from the Bucs, I heard Coach (Greg) Schiano's voice on the phone, I mean I almost had a heart attack," Spence said. "I knew I'd probably go (Saturday) at some point, but I didn't know that they were going to trade up for me. My dad jumped out of his chair, and my stepmom, she rolled on the floor. It's just a happy feeling."
Spence, 21, who won a state weightlifting title in the heavyweight division as a senior in high school, believes power has always been part of his game. He impressed at the combine by bench-pressing 225 pounds 37 times.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Spence is "as strong as they come" and a "weight-room warrior" but pointed out he needs to do a better job of transferring that to "functional strength" on the field. Spence, who had just 31/2 career sacks at Illinois, believes he can be productive, and take some pressure off Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
To do so, Spence will compete with fellow tackles Gary Gibson and Derek Landri, who signed a two-year $3.25 million deal in March.
"We felt Akeem was a powerful, very strong, very long tilted nose," Dominik said. "He was playing his finest at the end of the season, and consistent throughout. He's really a force inside, which is such an important aspect. That's why we made the move to make sure we didn't miss him."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]