Sean Spence proves worth the wait during 'rookie' year

It turns out during the 2014 season, Sean Spence learned the same thing about himself that the Steelers, their coaches and their fans learned about him.

“That I still know how to play football,” Spence said.

A four-year starter at Miami lauded for his instincts and intangibles, Spence said he “knew how to play football” when the Steelers took him in the third round of the 2012 draft and pictured him as a long-term fixture at inside linebacker.

They just never got to see him play it — at least during a regular-season game — until this season.

Spence's career — even his ability to walk or run — were being questioned after he suffered a gruesome knee injury during the 2012 preseason finale.

That was supposed to be his rookie season. Instead, after two full years of rehabilitation, 2014 became Spence's debut campaign.

“This year,” he said, “I was pretty much a rookie.

“Even though I had two years in the system, it's different when you've got to go out there playing (because of) the speed of the game. So next season I'm going to understand the defense better and understand myself better.”

Spence fought his way back onto the field after destructive damage was done to his left knee when his cleats stuck awkwardly in the Heinz Field turf against Carolina on Aug. 30, 2012.

The diagnosis was lengthy and cringe-worthy enough that a medical degree wasn't needed to interpret its severity: torn ACL, torn posterior cruciate ligament, torn lateral cruciate ligament, dislocation of the kneecap and peroneal nerve damage.

“I beat a lot of odds,” Spence said. “(God) really blessed me, and I thank Him for that. ... I just try to give it back to him the way I play.”

For his efforts, Spence has become an inspiration — to teammates, fans, coaches and those who played and coached him at Miami, where he was an All-ACC honoree.

“The fact he got through the season healthy is truly a blessing,” Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said. “We're all really proud of him and happy for him.”

D'Onofrio, a former Penn State linebacker, noted Spence's greatest attributes as a linebacker — instincts, football IQ — aren't affected by injuries.

Spence was productive in college and high school, but it was never pure physical tools that made him a standout. Spence was the shortest (5-foot-11) and smallest (231 pounds) of any of the Steelers linebackers who played this season, and his 4.71-second, 40-yard dash time at the 2012 NFL Combine was hardly eye-popping.

“He has really excellent football intelligence. He understands the game, very instinctive, which are huge attributes in playing linebacker,” D'Onofrio said. “If you know where the ball's going, if you're an instinctive player, you can play fast.”

With some of Spence's burst robbed by the injury, the Steelers found out about him this season. He started nine games, including the entire four-game winning streak on which they closed out the regular season.

“I was out for two years and had to knock off some rust,” Spence said, “but I feel like every game, every practice, I got better, and I'm just going to try to carry it over to next year.”

With 2014 first-round pick Ryan Shazier playing his position, Spence isn't expected to start next season.

Then again, the odds he faces pale in comparison to those he already has scaled.

“It was a good start for him in terms of getting back on the field,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “But … he's going to be working to ascend, and he better.”

Bookmark and Share
blog comments powered by Disqus