Rookie defensive tackle Akeem Spence has had no time to celebrate completing his first NFL training camp. He’ll be making his pro debut this Sunday against the New York Jets, lining up opposite Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy.
He is the only member of this year’s rookie class expected to start in Week 1.
“It feels real good just getting camp out of the way, competing with my teammates and stuff, and just actually getting preseason stuff out of the way. And finally getting to the season, you just take a breath, a sigh of relief,” said Spence, a fourth-round pick out of Illinois and native of Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
“It’s actually going to count for something.”
Up until this point, he’s had some time, although not much, to adjust to playing the nose tilt position in the Bucs defense. He’s had to learn to angle or ’tilt’ his 6-foot-1, 307-pound body in such a way to catch the center by surprise, penetrating the A gap, which is the area between the center and right guard.
It’s a different technique than what he was used to in college.
“He’s going to be a really good player. He’s got tremendous power, he can overwhelm people with his strength and I think he’s probably got a little better pass rush than most people would think,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sherdian.
“He can rush a passer — a lot of it, because he’s so powerful. He’s hard just in the gate at the line of scrimmage.”
To play his position and compliment McCoy, he must be very precise in his technique, something that’s typically built on repetition and over a period of time. As a first-year player, Spence wasn’t afforded that luxury when he first got to Tampa. He was forced to grow a lot in a short period of time.
“I felt like I grew a lot just watching myself on film, just seeing how I executed my technique, just my stance and stuff — everything changed throughout the four weeks [of camp]. That was real big, getting that stuff down, then going out and competing every week, and then getting comfortable with what I’m doing.”
Once he got the technique down, and got used to leading with his hands rather than his feet, the position became more natural for him, including some of the stunts he’s been asked to do.
“At the start of camp I was beating myself up about it, just trying to hurry up, and get the technique, get it down so I could start playing,” Spence said.
“Once I stopped thinking about it and just started going out and playing football, working on my technique day-in and day-out, and then just stopping thinking about it so much, it started to come to me quicker.”
Spence finished his preseason with 6 combined tackles and 3 tackles for a loss, two of which came in the Dolphins’ game.
There was the play against Miami where he stormed into the backfield and pinned Daniel Thomas for a 3-yard loss. Then on third-and-1 in the red zone, he took down Thomas again for a 2-yard loss.
He’s hoping some of that success will carry over Sunday and beyond.
“I’m just trying to go out the same way I did in preseason, just try to stay calm, just try to maintain my composure, and not over-think it. Just go and execute my technique, play to the best of my ability, and make plays when I’m supposed to.”