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3rd-rounder Spence eager to soak in Steelers' system

| Monday, May 7, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
Steelers third-round pick Sean Spence looks on during rookie minicamp on the South Side on May 4, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Sean Spence grew up in Miami, but the Steelers were always his favorite NFL team. As such, he needed anything but a history lesson after the team issued him No. 51 last week.

“I understand James Farrior wore this number,” Spence said. “He's a great linebacker, but I'm not James Farrior. The things he did I may not be able to do.”

Comparisons to Farrior, who was released earlier this year, are more than just premature, and that explains why Spence was one of the Steelers' more curious draft picks.

The former Miami Hurricanes standout is not playing Farrior's old position, and his selection didn't address a glaring short- or long-term need. But as Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said: “I think the Steelers looked at it and thought they were getting a good football player. I think he'll be a good fit.”

The question is where.

The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Spence is a bit undersized by NFL standards, and he is slated to play behind Lawrence Timmons at right inside linebacker.

Nothing is assured next season beyond extensive special teams duty, and that is assuming Spence makes a successful transition from the ACC to the AFC North. Spence's athletic ability and aptitude suggests he could emerge as a key contributor in various sub-packages, including the Steelers' nickel defense.

Spence, an outside linebacker at Miami, has plenty of experience dropping into coverage. Spence also proved to be a quick study at Miami, partly out of necessity.

He played for three defensive coordinators in four seasons, but that didn't stop Spence from leaving Miami as one of only six linebackers to record consecutive 100-tackle seasons.

“He learned what the other guys on the field were supposed to do as well (as his own position),” said D'Onofrio, who coached Spence his senior season. “He's a great kid. Always has a good attitude, a smile on his face.”

Spence, who took part in rookie minicamp over the weekend, shrugged off questions about whether he is big enough to play inside in the NFL. One factor that suggests it won't be much of an issue is the way the game has changed.

“A lot of stuff today is misdirection and trying to fool you or outnumber you one way and then give you a different look coming back the other way,” Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “A lot of that requires the ability to read from the linebackers, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes, you have to do it on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back. But we're taking on Ray Rice; we're not taking on Jerome Bettis anymore.”

Spence has taken on something as daunting as Rice, the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl running back, and that is a new playbook.

Spence has a couple of weeks to immerse himself in it before the start of offseason practices. The minicamp that concluded yesterday should help Spence when he returns to Pittsburgh later this month for practices that will include more than just rookies and first-year players.

“I think it's a huge advantage,” he said. “You don't want to come out here looking like a lost child in front of the vets and be embarrassed.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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