Miami's Sean Spence isn't as big as scouts would like, but his instincts, explosive hitting ability and penchant for big plays in big games will prove too much to ignore for some team in the 2012 draft.
A standout since stepping onto the field as a true freshman for the Hurricanes, Spence was named the 2008 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year after posting 65 tackles, including a team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss. His first career interception returned for a touchdown came against rival Florida State. He took down Tim Tebow for his first sack.
Spence struggled through a nagging knee injury in 2009. The injury cost him three full games and left him essentially one-legged for much of the rest of the season. He registered 36 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Healthy again in 2010, the playmaking Spence was back at it. He earned Second Team All-ACC honors with 111 tackles (fifth in the conference) and again led the team with 16 tackles for loss.
At his size, Spence doesn't fit a 3-4 scheme. However, his frame can be protected by a four man front. Instinctive, athletic and explosive, he could prove one of the better weakside linebacker prospects in the country.
Read & React: Probably his best asset. Excellent diagnosis skills. Is rarely out of position even against quality play-action, though he can be too aggressive in attacking the hole, leaving cutback lanes for talented backs. Shoots gaps, escaping blocks of the behemoth offensive lineman to rack up tackles at (or often behind) the line of scrimmage. Sniffs out screens and draws quickly. High effort player who hustles to the ball in pursuit. Is seemingly always around the action.
Run Defense: Makes a lot of plays againt the run due to his instincts and athleticism. Shows surprising explosiveness in his upper body, which combined with his natural leverage advantage make him a tougher block for offensive linemen than he appears. Would rather elude blockers, however, and does so well, zipping through holes to often trip up ball-carriers before they've built their momentum. Very good chase linebacker. Possesses good timed speed and good balance to keep his feet while wading through the trash. Takes good angles in pursuit.
Pass Defense: Gains good depth on his drops and trusts his eyes. Reads the quarterback and often gets a head start towards the receiver due to his instincts. Good agility and straight-line speed. Would like to see him be more physical in re-routing tight ends as they come off the line; instead he relies on his athleticism to mirror backs and tight ends. Lack of size hurts him in this area, as bigger tight ends can simply catch passes over him. Does not appear to have the loose hips to consider a move to a traditional safety role.
Tackling: A bit inconsistent in this area, despite his hype. Good lateral agility and balance to break down. Reads the action so quickly and relies so heavily on his burst to make plays before blockers can get to him, however, that he has a tendency to lunge, resulting in some ugly missed tackles (Ohio State). The lunging can lead to impressive hits, however, as Spence generates impressive momentum and can explode into ball-carriers, forcing fumbles. Generally does a nice job of wrapping his arms around the legs of ball-carriers, but his relatively short limbs and weak upper body lead to some ball-carriers running through his arm tackles. Very good effort in pursuit. Spends too much time on the ground, but isn't there for long.
Pass Rush/Blitz: An underrated element of his game. Does a nice job of anticipating the snap count and times his blitzes well. Great speed through gaps and has a legitimate burst to close on the quarterback. Doesn't rely strictly on his athleticism, as he has an effective swim move and good agility to elude (including spin by) backs in the hole.
Intangibles: Spence was among the seven heralded recruits from Northwestern High to sign with Miami, along with QB Jacory Harris, DT Marcus Forston, among others. Signed with Miami as a 195-pound linebacker... Honored by his teammates as Miami's Most Valuable Player following 2010 season... Projects best as a weakside linebacker for the NFL, but plays strongside for Miami."
Needs to do a better job leaning and looking for the football a bit earlier, but is tough to separate from vertically. Can be out physicaled vs. tight ends underneath on contact and will lose a step and give up initial separation, and he needs to be a bit more physical on contact in coverage.
Keeps his feet under him, drops pad level well when trying to click and close and exhibits an impressive burst toward the football. Takes good angles toward the throw, but his ball skills are only average.
Lacks great hands and isn't a lock for coming down with the pick. Keeps his head on a swivel in zone coverage, but can be a split second late at times feeling routes develop around him. Exhibits good speed sideline to sideline and works hard in pursuit, but exhibits only average awareness in zone.
Demonstrates good instincts inside vs. the run game, is quick to diagnose the run, doesn't take many false steps away from the action and knows how to pick his way through traffic.
However, he isn't real physical at the point of attack, and will struggle to handle full backs who can take a proper angle on him, becoming overwhelmed on contact. He isn't going to stack and shed vs. NFL offensive lineman either.
However, he gets early jumps on the ball and does a very good job dropping his pad level once he gains the angle, keeping his balance and fighting his way under the block, accelerating toward the football. Exhibits great range in pursuit and will tackle in space and in the hole.
He possesses a natural snap from his lower half into contact, uncoiling well form the hips and using his length well to wrap. However, he'll struggle at times to breakdown in pursuit.
He's not the most physical of backers and tends to overrun plays at times, lacking the power to get into the body of ball carriers. Had a really tough time trying to bring bigger, more athletic athletes down in space at times.
Impression: A gifted sideline-to-sideline athlete who can play in space and make plays off his frame. Size is a concern, but looks like a starter in a cover two scheme who can play three downs in the NFL."
Has good hip flex to drop smoothly into zone, shadow backs in coverage and react to throws, which allows for a potential conversion to safety given his lack of strength and physicality at the point."
One of his strengths is coverage. He's also a fluid athlete who makes plays around the field. Although he's shown to be adept at getting into the backfield, some teams may be scared off by his lack of size.
Spence had an outstanding 2010 season after an injury-marred 2009. Last season, he had 111 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and six pass deflections. On a talented defense, they're impressive numbers. His junior season earned him a spot on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski awards as a senior.
Games Viewed: (All 2010) Ohio State, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame
Bold Statement: Spence will better-served professionally if he works out at all-star games as a safety.
• Is a loose-hipped athlete that can make plays all over the field. Does a nice job covering the short passing game. Will be an asset for defenses in pass coverage.
• Isn't known as an aggressive, terrorizing tackler. Is technically sound in his approach to tackling and rarely makes a bad play.
• Because he lacks some strength, Spence will have some trouble against stronger opponents and requires help from teammates at times.
• Obviously doesn't have the prototypical size you see in an NFL linebacker.
• Spence is instinctually superior to most college linebackers. Has a coach for a father, and it shows in how well Spence knows the game.
• Uses his technical know-how to avoid and shed blockers. Does a really nice job of getting low to beat stronger players.
• Has lined up at strong-side and middle linebacker for Miami. In the NFL, is most likely a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3.
• No known off-field or character issues. Was raised to be humble and work hard. Known as someone who puts in a lot of film study."
Not all that big at barely 225 pounds, but still packs a wallop when he finds the ball as he explodes through ball-carriers; isn’t going to stack and shed at the point of attack because of his size, but is tough to block because he is so active;
Specializes in getting into the backfield before a play has a chance to develop and had 13.5 other tackles for loss last season; not a natural pass rusher, though, but did have 2.5 sacks last fall;
Has great balance, can change direction on the fly, as well as flip his hips in transition out of his back-peddle; solid in coverage, but has the hands of a LB; missed three games in 2009 with a knee injury."
Excellent production in last two seasons at Miami (217 tackles including 31 for a loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles)... Is an elusive player in traffic, is shifty enough to avoid blockers and stay with the ball carrier... Is a very heady player, reads and diagnoses quickly, shows good awareness and the willingness to put in time studying opponents...
Has not had any major character issues, is a hard worker and a good leader... Excels in short zone coverage, has good instincts and the ability to anticipate throws, reads the quarterback's eyes and gets to the football...
Although not especially good at driving through tackles, has a good amount of pop at impact, shows the ability to knock the ball loose at impact... May find best fit as a cover linebacker on passing downs, NFL coaches should be intrigued by coverage ability, could see immediate playing time on passing downs and special teams.
Negatives -- Below average height for an NFL linebacker, is also very thin, definitely needs to bulk up to ensure durability and productivity as an every-down player at the next level... Does not fit the mold of durable NFL linebackers, is more of a tweener prospect, fit and versatility a bit of a question mark...
Has good coverage skills but only picked off one pass in his four-year career at Miami... Will likely have issues with tackling in the NFL, is not a drive-through tackler, wraps up too high at times and will struggle to bring down larger backs in open space...
Gets blocked away from plays far too easily at times, simply lacks the upper-body strength to out-muscle blockers, can get sucked up at the line of scrimmage and taken out of plays... Not a versatile pass rusher, is very quick off the snap and can beat some slower tackles on the edge, but does not display a very versatile array of pass-rushing moves."