As an undersized linebacker at the University of Miami, Sean Spence drew comparisons to Jonathan Vilma for his speed, quickness, athleticism and ability to make tackles. And his stature.
Spence was a sideline-to-sideline tackle machine for the Hurricanes, becoming the first Miami player since Vilma -- and only sixth in school history -- to register 100 or more tackles in back-to-back seasons. Like Vilma, who is 6 feet 1, Spence didn't seem to have any problems seeing over the line of scrimmage, either.
Even if he is two inches shorter than Vilma.
"I love Sean Spence," NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said before the draft. "Someone is going to get a hell of a player."
That turned out to be the Steelers, who made him their third-round selection in the NFL draft.
- What: Steelers rookie camp, South Side practice facility
- When: Friday-Sunday
- Left: As a prolific tackler, Sean Spence has drawn comparisons to another former University of Miami player == Jonathan Vilma.
Even if he isn't the type of player they needed to fill a hole in their 3-4 defense. Not if they were looking for a long-term replacement for James Farrior.
Linebacker coach Keith Butler said Spence will be used as the "mack" inside linebacker in their defense, a position manned by Lawrence Timmons. At 5 feet 11, 233 pounds, he is not ideally suited to play the "buck" position that Farrior filled since 2002.
"I wouldn't call him a buck, no," Butler said. "The buck linebacker has to be a little bit bigger and take on the guards more. We cover up our linebackers pretty good. What I mean by that is, we let them scrape and run to football a little bit more instead of coming downhill and taking on isolations."
Farrior, though, played at a weight lighter than Spence the past couple seasons. After once weighing as much as 245 pounds when he first arrived, Farrior played closer to 225 and sometimes as low as 218 late in the season -- thinking the lighter weight would help him maintain his speed as he got older.
The Steelers were prepared to draft Farrior's long-term replacement in the first round, but when Stanford guard David DeCastro slipped to the 24th overall spot they drafted him ahead of Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The New England Patriots quickly traded up and took Hightower at No. 25.
The Steelers waited until the third round to draft Spence, who played at outside linebacker in 39 of the 40 games he started over four seasons at Miami. The Steelers believe his speed and athleticism more than make up for his lack of height.
"The day of the [isolation] with the middle linebacker is almost gone," Butler said. "Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don't. 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.
"A lot of that requires the ability to read from the linebackers nowadays, 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."
That doesn't seem to matter to Spence, who had 111 tackles in 2010 and 106 in '11 when he was named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference. All he is focused on is coming in and making the team, even if most of his action will be on special teams.
"When I met with coach Butler at the combine, he told me that no rookie linebacker came in and started; they had to work their way in on special teams," Spence said. "I am all for it. Anything I can do for the team, I am willing to help, whether that's coming in and contributing on special teams, I am all for it.
"It's great to come to an organization that always competes for a championship. Having a chance to play here is just a tremendous feeling."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.