TAMPA — Is this the guy?
Could Bucs rookie defensive end Noah Spence, a second-round pick with first-round talent, make the Bucs pass rush matter for the first time in forever?
That's asking a lot from a 22-year-old coming off the edge, but what an astounding comeback it would be, since Spence's football career about went over a cliff after partying and failed drug tests got him kicked out of Ohio State and made him drop like a rock on most draft boards.
Is this the guy?
The Bucs want to think that. Spence won't run away from the challenge.
"I like it," he said. "I want that."
I thought Spence was a catch for the Bucs in the second round, 39th overall. I had a bigger problem with them trading up to get FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo later in the round.
There's monstrous upside if the 6-foot-2, 251-pound Spence plays like he did at Ohio State — before his recklessness brought him down — or devours quarterbacks as he did after landing at Eastern Kentucky.
But it's up to Spence to reward the Bucs on and off the field. If he doesn't? Well, it's not as if they spent the No. 11 pick on him. It's a risk-reward deal.
The Bucs have been searching for a menacing edge rusher, since Simeon Rice left. The franchise hasn't had a double-digit sacker since Rice had 14 in 2005. It's a pathetic streak, one littered with failed draft picks and free agents. A lot of busts. It's time for a boom.
Is this the one?
"This whole experience has been a blessing," Spence said Thursday after Bucs minicamp ended. "I feel like we're clicking together, but they've been mostly pulling me along, teaching me this game."
Another new Bucs edge rusher, NFL eight-year veteran Robert Ayers, sees it different.
"I wouldn't call him my protege," Ayers, 30, said. "I'm learning from him, a lot of natural things you just can't teach. The kid has a lot of ability, man. He's willing to learn. He's making mistakes, just like all of us are, but he has the want-to. … I feel like the sky's the limit."
"He brings an excitement and a talent not many guys possess," Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said. "He brings the kind of X factor to what we have going on."
Is this the guy? You know, the guy who registered a pedestrian 4.8 seconds (at least for an edge rusher) in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine?
"First of all, that's ugly," Spence said. He smiled. "Everybody knows I had a (bad) hamstring at the combine. I'll go run one right now and you can time it. Anytime you want, we can do that."
"That time doesn't match up to the tape," general manager Jason Licht said. "On the tape, he's got a great first step. He's a really athletic guy. … But the biggest thing we liked on the tape were just his pure, natural instincts as a rusher, which you can't really coach. Yes, you can coach, you can enhance, but some guys know how to rush and some guys don't."
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Is this the guy? The guy with the up-down past?
Licht and his staff trust their vetting. It has been right so far on the starting quarterback. Forgot his name.
Spence described a life-changing moment: being at home in Columbus after the Big Ten banned him, watching the TV as Urban Meyer's Buckeyes won the national title without him.
"It was so hard," Spence said. "But it taught me. When you get something taken away from you, it can teach you and help you bounce back at the same time."
Like Jameis Winston before him, he's only asking for a chance with Bucs fans.
"You can't just keep judging a person off of who they were," Spence said two weeks ago. "That was a couple of years back. I feel like I'm a changed person, more mature. I feel like I've turned over a new leaf."
"He's got a great opportunity here," Licht said. "I don't want to put too much pressure on him. I don't want the fans to demand and expect 12 sacks. It's a process. Not many rookies do that."
Noah Spence made this promise for training camp:
"Passion, relentlessness, effort. All I got."
I'll bring the stopwatch.