Thank you for making last week’s SR’s Fab 5 column about former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden a record-setter with nearly 40,000 reads! It was a great weekend for PewterReport.com as every major national media outlet picked up our breaking news about Gruden preparing to return to coaching. Now let’s turn the focus to Bucs training camp, shall we?
SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Spence “A Vicious Animal” For Bucs Defense
Tampa Bay defensive end Noah Spence was quiet last year in the locker room. The Bucs’ second-round pick in 2016 was overly humble and perhaps a bit wary of the media.
Spence’s answers were short as he let his play on the field do the talking. His rookie season saw him record 5.5 sacks and force three fumbles – with a dislocated shoulder and his arm in a harness after the first month of the season, too.
Not exactly a loud rookie season, but not quiet, either. In fact, Spence’s rookie campaign was similar to that of Vic Beasley, Jr., who had four sacks two forced fumbles and an interception as Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2015. Last year, Beasley erupted for an NFL-leading 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and one fumble recovery for a touchdown en route to his first Pro Bowl berth.
The Bucs feel like Spence, who has reduced his body fat and is up to a chiseled 242 pounds, is ready for a breakout season similar to the one Beasley had last year. The way Spence has started off training camp as an unblockable force, don’t bet against him.
“It can happen,” Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said. “This is his second year and Noah definitely has the explosiveness. He has the bend off the edge and the motor to get those things done and be a 15-sack guy. He can sack, fumble, pick it up and run 50 yards for a touchdown. He has the speed for it. With that combination you can look at this guy and see he has a bright future here.”
This year, Spence is no longer a wide-eyed rookie. His eyes have the look of determination. The shoulder injury that hampered him last year is now a distant memory and he’s eager to show Tampa Bay – and more importantly the Bucs’ opponents – what he can really do with two healthy arms.
“I feel great,” Spence said. “I love it. I really couldn’t play and be myself last year. Now I feel so much better and more like myself. It’s going to be fun this year.”
It’s not going to be fun for opposing offensive tackles. Just ask Bucs offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson, who have to battle him every day in practice as Spence plays both left and right defensive end.
“The one thing I like about Noah is that he brings an attitude with him,” Dotson said. “He doesn’t like to lose. The guy has a long way to go, obviously, but he’s a guy that is willing to work. He competes every day out here. He wasn’t out here during OTAs and he’s coming out here at camp going hard and making up for lost time. His upside is great. The sky is the limit for him.”
Spence has been quite the challenge for Smith, who has been getting a lot of work on trying to stop the Eastern Kentucky product’s inside move.
“Noah is good, man,” Smith said. “He’s a very agile guy who can bend and go inside real quick or he can take you outside. He is fast off the ball. It just benefits us. The tackles are getting work against him the way he changes his rushes. He is real good.”
I asked Spence the most valuable lesson he learned as a rookie and it was how to play head games with offensive tackles – something he is just beginning to do in practice with Smith and Dotson.
“Donovan is good when you just keep trying to run around him and run around him,” Spence said. “I’ve had to switch it up and try to lull him to sleep and work him inside. When you make him move like that he doesn’t like it.
“I’ve had to learn this year that you can’t win every rep. It’s like a chess match – you take a couple reps to make them think that’s what you’re going to do and then switch it up. It’s getting a lot easier for me. It’s about setting guys up in this league. Last year I didn’t know that. I thought I had to win every rep. Now I know the importance of setting guys up. It’s a mind game. Once I learned that it’s gotten a lot easier for me.”
While Spence has always been highly interested in the X’s and O’s McDonald has noticed him step up his game from a strategic standpoint even more.
“Noah is becoming a great student of the game,” McDonald said. “He is learning that this is not about win, win, win. It’s setting it up for the next play. Not every play is going to be your play, but the way he works hard and the way he hustles he allows the plays to come to him.
“By him working hard on his technique and his assignment on the lineman, he is able to make more plays. He is learning, and his status as a second-year player, he wants to be a Pro Bowl guy and a rush-type guy. Noah is very experienced and coachable as well.”
Despite Spence missing the offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery, Tampa Bay defensive line coach Jay Hayes is happy with his progress a week into training camp.
“Really what I try to teach him is you have to take what people are giving you,” Hayes said. “If someone is giving you their hands you have to see it. They have to use their vision and see what people are doing. [Offensive linemen] only got two hands they can hit you with. If you see those and carry your hands high then you will be able to counter what is happening to you. Don’t let them touch you on your body.
“With Noah that is really big because he is not the biggest guy. If someone gets their hands on him they are going to stop him. He’s got to do a great job at keeping people’s hands off him and he is.”
Veteran Bucs defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. suggested Spence could be a “15-sack guy” in the offseason and appreciates the cerebral approach the young pass rusher has shown thus far in the NFL.
“This game is 90 percent mental,” Ayers said. “You have to be able to handle the mental part of it. You can’t just go out there thinking you are going to out-muscle everybody. You have to out-think everybody. Sometimes you beat people mentally and get a sack. He’s striving to figure that out and it’s great to see a young guy figure it out so fast.”
Ayers has noticed Spence’s personality come to the surface more this year. He’s way past his rookie status.
“He is a lot more confident and I told him that the other day,” Ayers said. “He seems like he is playing with a lot more swag. He believes in himself and he knows what to expect. He’s playing faster. I’ve told him nobody can block him and he believes that. He’s working his ass off. I think he has a chip on his shoulder because he got hurt last year and couldn’t do the things he wanted to do. He got nicked up a little bit last year, but now he is motivated. It’s going to be a fun year for him. He is angry right now and wants to get after it.”
As Tampa Bay’s most undersized defensive lineman at 6-foot-2, 242, Spence knows he needs to improve in the run game, but defensive end Will Gholston says he’s shown improvement and believes Spence’s mentality is the reason why.
“He can play the run pretty well, too.” Gholston said. “He’s improved. In camp he has been a vicious animal. I say that in the best way I can because he is a defensive lineman. I like his intensity and his preparation. We sit next to each other in the meeting rooms. I don’t even have to remind him and tell him to take notes because he is always taking notes. It’s going to be a great year for him, I know it.”