TAMPA — With Bucs rookie defensive tackle Akeem Spence, it's the splash plays that stand out.
Spence, the 6-foot-1, 307-pound fourth-round pick from Illinois, made several in Saturday's win over the Dolphins. Spence was a force, racking up two tackles for loss, including one on a key third-and-1 play in the red zone, and another stop for no gain.
"He's definitely playing at a high level," coach Greg Schiano said.
The Bucs believed Spence, 21, had the ability to step right in. They let Roy Miller, the incumbent starter at tilted nose tackle, depart in free agency. When the Bucs drafted Spence, Schiano said he wasn't taken to watch.
But though Spence is a strong candidate to start, Schiano cautioned he's not a finished product. The rookie has shown typical signs of inconsistency, like losing the "A" gap between the center and guard that he's supposed to own in run defense.
"He has a chance," Schiano said. "I'm not ready to ordain him Joe Greene yet, but he has a chance."
No one expected Spence to be Greene, the Steelers Hall of Famer. But Schiano said Spence is more athletic and a better pass rusher than many thought.
Spence, a former Florida high school weightlifting champ, is also very strong. He admits he still has a lot to learn, but believes he has come a long way in camp and believes he's ready.
"It took some time to settle into it, but I feel like I put in some great work to be the starter," Spence said. "But hey, if coach feels like I am, then that's great. If not, then I'll fill my role and still try to get better to one day have that position."
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, impressed by Spence's strength, talent and attitude, says he can be the Mike Williams of this draft.
"Mike was a fourth-round pick and took over the offense, and Spence has that ability," McCoy said. "He's a hard worker, he's kind of ridiculously strong. He's a perfectionist like I am. For me to work with somebody like that, it's a lot of fun."
Spence said that, during his first few days of camp, he felt out of whack. He had to get used to the technique of a tilted nose, a dirty-work position where he has to lead with his hands to tie up the opposing center.
"I was taught to run off the ball with your feet, then hands," he said. "It's real different."
Spence said McCoy has been a meaningful mentor, working with him before every practice, helping him improve his hand placement, pick up the scheme and limit mental errors. Spence said he feels really good with his technique, the playbook, and his ability. But he knows consistency is something he has to work on, especially competing with more experienced players such as defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Derek Landri.
"It's crazy, man, with the NFL it's like you can't have a bad day because everybody is good," Spence said. "I think that's the difference that I really had to come out here and really work in practice. Because some days (in college), you can go out there, 'Hey, I'm better than this guy, so I'm not really going to go hard.' But here, you've got to bust your butt every play, make sure you're mentally sharp and you've got to be sound at all times."
That means, as Schiano says, Spence needs to hold his ground in the "A" gap, no matter if he's cut or clipped. No excuses.
"That's your gap, and … you don't give that up, period," Schiano said. "But he's getting better at it. It used to be he'd give it up four, five times in a stretch, now maybe once. So he'll get there, there's no doubt.
"He's got all the skills to do it, and he wants to, and he's eager to, and he's got a great leader right on his other side of the center in Gerald. (If) he stays healthy, this guy is going to be a good player."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.