TAMPA — The great expectations for Bucs defensive end Noah Spence started last month, when Gerald McCoy said he has a "breakout year" ahead in his second NFL season. Then teammate Robert Ayers said Wednesday that Spence could be "a 15-plus sack guy," an impressive leap from his 61/2-sack rookie year.
Spence isn't making any specific goals for 2017, but he's not shying away from the confidence his teammates have in what he's capable of doing.
"We all have expectations for each other. We all have expectations for ourselves. It's all on what you do on the field, not what you say you're going to do. I want to go out and prove it," said Spence, 23 and just a year removed from going in the second round to the Bucs after playing at Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky. "I'm just going to go out and try my best to help contribute to the team as best I can."
Spence was limited by a shoulder injury much of his rookie year, wearing a harness to lessen the chance of another separation, and he had surgery after the season to repair a torn labrum. Not only will he be fully recovered for his second season, he has made major strides in conditioning. Spence was listed at 251 pounds last year but played lighter, and he said he's "240, 243" right now. More importantly, he said he has dropped from 14-15 percent body fat down to 9-10 percent.
"I feel so much better," said Spence, who said he has cut fast food from his diet and is drinking only water to get leaner in the offseason.
Spence was at West Tampa Elementary on Friday morning with teammates DaVonte Lambert and Chris Conte as the school dedicated a new track and launched a "Blessings in the Backpack" program, which sends qualifying students home with nutritious food each weekend to make sure they get a good diet. It's part of a partnership with United Healthcare, and the Bucs players spoke about the importance of combining healthy foods with regular exercise.
Spence said he has learned much in the past year, and being in the same defense for his second year is a major help after he spent so much of last summer trying to learn the intricacies of coordinator Mike Smith's defense.
"That was the biggest part for me, coming in and trying to learn the defense," Spence said. "Going from college, where everything is so basic, to the NFL, where the defense looks like a dictionary. Now that I know a lot more of the defense, I can run around and play faster."
Smith said Spence showed his toughness last season by playing through the injury, and he has already shown himself to be a more versatile player than they had expected.
"He's a guy that we're expecting big things from," Smith said this week. "He is much more than we anticipated, being able to be a three-down (player), and he is looking really good, watching him work on the side. Very excited about having him join us when we get started in training camp."
Having Spence and Will Gholston fully recovered from shoulder injuries, and having fellow ends Jacquies Smith and George Johnson healthy after missing last season with injuries, would be a huge boost for the team's defensive line and the defense as a whole.
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"I don't even know what we can be like. Definitely, having everybody back is a blessing," Spence said. "There's always hype after the draft, as I can see around the facility. It's going to be fun."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.