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Why Noah Spence could be the Bucs' X-factor

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Noah Spence (57) participates in training camp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Noah Spence (57) participates in training camp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times 

Published Aug. 16, 2017

JACKSONVILLE — Noah Spence crouched in a four-point stance, bending low like a sprinter in starting blocks. At the snap, he took one step to his right, startling Jaguars left tackle Josh Wells with his explosiveness. Wells went for the move, and Spence countered with an inside swim move, flying past Wells' right shoulder to a clear path to the quarterback.

Bucs teammates, watching the pass-rush drill during a joint workout with the Jaguars on Tuesday, reacted with a chorus of "Ooh, ooh, ooh!"

"He's like Gumby," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "I said, 'You're Gumby-like.' And of course, he doesn't know what Gumby was. I talked to him about, 'Hey, that's an elastic toy that I grew up with that you could bend in different directions.' "

When you talk about Spence's importance to the Bucs this season, expectations tend to stretch.

Defensive end Robert Ayers said, "I think he's a player who could be a 15-plus-sack guy this year."

Tackle Gerald McCoy insisted that "this guy can take over the NFL, man. He can completely erase my name from everything because he is that good."

Keep in mind, no Buc has produced 10 sacks in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005.

When confronted with those lofty predictions, Spence took a deep breath and sighed.

"I don't like to listen to anybody talking," he said softly. "I just come out here to do my job every day and get better."

Spence played most of his rookie season last year with a torn labrum that required offseason shoulder surgery. He still managed 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

"It definitely was just me and my love of the game and God being there with me," Spence said. "I was pretty much just being out there with heart.

"It was a lot. I'm still growing, getting back to myself, trying to get my moves down and use my stuff. It's a process."

For the Bucs to compete with the impressive list of NFC South quarterbacks — to say nothing of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning this year — Spence has to become special.

The best-case scenario would be for him to make a leap similar to the one Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley made. As a rookie in 2015, Beasley struggled against the run and finished with 20 tackles and only four sacks. Last season Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks for the NFC champions.

It may be unrealistic for Spence to live up to Ayers' prediction, but any great defense needs a dominant edge rusher.

"Everybody talks about Noah being a double-digit sack guy and all that," Smith said. "Really, we just need him to be as aggressive as he can be, and sometimes it's not on the stat sheet. If he can draw the offensive line turning to him or draw some double teams or chips, it's going to allow other guys to get there."

At 6 feet 2 and 251 pounds, Spence is about the same weight as rookie tight end O.J. Howard but 3 inches shorter. His biggest assets are speed, rare flexibility and athleticism.

"If you're just going off pure athleticism, he's Derrick Thomas, Von Miller-ish," McCoy told NFL radio during a training camp stop last week. "Very, very close. It's ridiculous. He can run, and when you look at it, we're always like 'Man, what is in your ankles? You don't have, like, bone. You don't have regular ankles.' There's no way you can run that fast with your ankles touching the grass and your knees on the ground and you're still running full speed."

Ayers believed last year that Spence would have at least 10 sacks and be named the NFL defensive rookie of the year.

"I think this year he's even hungrier," Ayers said.

If so, a playoff appearance for the Bucs would not be a stretch.

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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