Big Plans for Former Cane Sean Spence in Pittsburgh?

As an NFL prospect, scouts were in love with Sean Spence’s instincts, football IQ, and aggressiveness. He put these invaluable traits on display during a successful career at The U, but Spence’s size, or lack thereof, was difficult to ignore as a prospect. At 5’11″ 231 lbs, he was sure to be among the smallest at his position in a league populated by behemoths. Interestingly enough, Spence was drafted early by a team that’s been home to large, physical linebacking corps for decades. This makes Spence, and his mysterious role in the “Steel Curtain,” a very interesting scenario.

Immediately after selecting the former Hurricane, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler stated that Spence would begin his career at “Mack” ILB behind current starter Lawrence Timmons. At “Mack”, he would predominately be responsible for the outside edge and take wider angles in pursuit, acting more like a 4-3 WILL than a MIKE “downhill thumper.” However, the Steelers fan base is no longer buying into Butler’s “simple plan.” The coaching staff’s continuous high praise of the rookie and suspiciously noncommittal answers about his true position aren’t adding up, and it’s becoming hard to believe that Spence’s future simply consists of waiting in Timmons’ shadow.

Reports out of Pittsburgh lauding Spence as a “true student of the game” and “extremely fast and versatile player” are being interpreted as evidence that Spence may be poised for a specialty role. A hybrid linebacker that is spry enough to cover the NFL’s new breed of tight end, yet aggressive and instinctive enough to overcome his limited size in run support. This player must also posses the intelligence required to line up anywhere on the field and refer to his mental play book accordingly. For an example of such a player, look no further than Troy Polamalu. In fact, a theory exists that Spence is only Timmons’ back-up on paper. These “conspiracy theorists” believe that Spence is actually being groomed to replace Mr. Polamalu himself. I do not personally subscribe to this school of thought, but I won’t dismiss it entirely either.

Troy Polamalu has been an integral piece of the Steelers’ defense for a decade. Over the years, Dick Lebeau has expanded Polamalu’s job description tremendously (I’ve even spotted him lining up at DE) and I assume the Steelers will need to, at the very minimum, delegate his responsibilities once he is gone. At this point, it is unreasonable to suggest Spence will replace the future Hall of Famer, but with Polamalu’s impending retirement on the horizon, you cannot deny that the similarities in their skill sets are thought provoking. As Polamalu ages, I envision Spence gradually inheriting aspects of his role or, as unlikely as it may seem now, fully assuming Polamalu’s hybrid position. Simply stated, Sean Spence isn’t a traditional NFL linebacker, and I’m confident defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau did not draft him with the intention of utilizing him like one.

Regardless of the Steelers’ plans for Spence, it will certainly yield historical results should he succeed. Whether it be as a feisty, undersized ILB, the pioneer of an innovative LB position, or the heir to Polamalu’s throne, any three of those destinies will provide Spence with a unique opportunity to carry the University of Miami deeper into NFL lore. I am glad it’s Spence that has been given this chance. He is one of the few Canes that hasn’t let us down lately.

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