When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence with the 39th overall pick in April, they thought they were getting first-round pass-rushing talent. Nothing the coaches have witnessed on the practice field over the first nine days of training camp has changed their minds.
What has been particularly impressive about Spence's camp performance so far is that he has been both flashy and consistent. The former is a productive of his natural talents, but the latter is a sign of his dedication to get the most out of those talents.
"[He's] solid every day," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Every day the kid flashes. For a rookie, he hasn't hit any slump days, so to speak, where he's had an off day. Every day he flashes, he's got a nice motor, he pushes himself hard."
A clearly-improved pass rush has been one of the most welcome sights of the first nine days of camp, and Spence has contributed to that during full-team drills. The offense spent quite a bit of time practicing third-and-long situations on Friday, and when they did the defense often countered with a pass-rushing foursome of Spence and Jacquies Smith on the ends surrounding Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers in the middle. In one-on-one pass rush drills, a staple of every practice schedule, Spence has simply shown off his quickness and array of moves in a series of eye-opening reps.
Koetter, who dropped some unprompted praise on McCoy for the DT's pace-setting at practice, has noticed Spence doing a good job of following the lead of his veteran linemates.
"I think Robert Ayers and Gerald are setting a great pace for all of our D-linemen," said the coach. "Those two, as hard as they're pressing – just in that last red zone period, Ayers made two or three plays. In the run period, Gerald's so disruptive in our run periods we can hardly get a run play off. So they're setting a great example for all our D-linemen."
Left tackle Donovan Smith, who frequently draws the assignment of blocking Spence, both in team drills and one-on-ones, has been impressed by the rookie's speed and his ability to bend around blocks without going to the ground.
"He's doing good," said Smith. "I went against him in college. He's more so learning and knowing how to rush people now and having a plan coming off the ball, so that's great. We try to make each other better, help each other out – some wins, some losses and we just go from there, help each other out."
- Three days after drafting Spence in the spring, the Buccaneers waived defensive end Martin Ifedi to create roster space for an influx of undrafted rookies. However, Spence and Ifedi are now teammates after the team re-signed the latter on Friday to provide some much needed depth at end.
That need arose when fifth-year veteran George Johnson was placed on injured reserve due to a hip injury suffered on Thursday. Koetter, who said that Johnson had been performing well in camp before his mishap, referred to the injury as "significant," and it potentially reduces the Bucs' depth in several ways. Johnson was one of the team's ends who was seen as a candidate to also take some snaps at defensive tackle in certain situations.
"We don't want to lose anybody," said Koetter. "Shoot, any injury is a blow to our depth right now because these guys are competing for spots. Yeah, it's a blow and it's unfortunate. The worst part of this game is that, is the injury situation. [It's] unfortunate and we wish George the best in his recovery.
"Kourtnei Brown and Howard Jones are guys that are going to be put into the limelight right now. They were already there in the competition, but it's going to increase their role a little bit."
On the other side of the line, Kevin Pamphile was also missing on Friday, though his absence was due to a family matter, not an injury. The Bucs had been running Pamphile at left guard with the first-team line with free agent acquisition J.R. Sweezy still on the PUP list. With neither of those two players available, the Bucs leaned on the versatility of another veteran lineman, Evan Smith. Smith has been battling with Joe Hawley for the starting center job, but on Friday he slid over next to Hawley and took first-team reps at left guard.
"Kevin was excused today for a personal issue, and I'm not sure but it's nothing that is going to be long term, it's something that just had to happen," said Koetter. "Injuries or guys missing [practice], we just have to deal with it. That's all you can do. You've got restrictions on how many guys you can have here and injuries are an unfortunate part. Kevin's situation is not an injury but we just have to deal with it. That's how you build your depth and that's what we have to do."
- The Buccaneers are still a day or two away from releasing their first depth chart of 2016, but some clarity is starting to emerge at cornerback.
Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner have taken the majority of the first-team snaps at the two cornerback spots through the first nine days of camp. Jude Adjei-Barimah spent much of the first week as the "starting" nickel back, while rookie Vernon Hargreaves has taken over that role for the last three days. Those four have apparently separated from the pack, with another pair of veterans battling behind them.
"I think right now we have four guys kind of out in front right now, in no particular order: Grimes and Verner and Hargreaves and Jude," Koetter revealed on Friday. "And then we've got Banks and Josh Robinson kind of battling for five and six."