The head, by his own admission, is a work in progress, still. But for those NFL scouts who still ask about Noah Spence’s heart, Jon-Michael Davis just points to the kid’s hand.
The one the Eastern Kentucky defensive end dinged up during a drill. The one with the big ol’ cast on it.
“He wanted to work for his team and was willing to do it and got a little bit banged up,” Davis recalled. “(He) hurt his hand and never complained about it. He was like, ‘Hey, I’m still playing.’
“They were giving the second team some looks … and somehow his hand got banged up. And it was on to the next play for him.”
Tape it up, man. Let’s go. Let’s do this.
“We got to put the frosting on the cake,” said Davis, who’s run the strength and conditioning program for the Colonels since 2003. “We were the frosting and the cherry. And he was the same for us. We don’t have gentlemen like that walking in here every day.”
Davis has tutored a lot of kids, good kids, hard-working kids. At Richmond, he’s helped to mold two draft picks and a half-dozen other alums who found their respective niches in the NFL.
But Spence? Spence was different, the rarest of packages: A first-round talent with seventh-round want-to.
“Noah is special,” Davis said. “There’s a reason he had the stars behind his name coming out of high school and when he went to Ohio State. We got him last January (2015), and he was as good as advertised.”
The back story was hard to miss: Spence had shot quickly up the depth chart at Ohio State, racking up eight sacks for Urban Meyer’s Big Ten runners-up as a sophomore in 2013. But the fall was twice as quick and almost as spectacular — Spence was suspended in January and September of 2014, both times after failed drug tests, the second of which got him banned from the league.
He underwent treatment for ecstasy addiction and transferred out, seeking a clean slate and a second chance. EKU offered him both.
“It was with a group of people I can’t hang with,” Spence told NFL.com at the league’s Scouting Combine in February. “I had to be more myself and stay away from that party scene (at Ohio State). I have a girlfriend now, we chill, we go to movies and stuff like that. I don’t do much partying these days.”
But high-profile tumbles for high-profile prospects are hard to shake. Pro scouts pegged the 6-2, 251-pound junior as a million-dollar motor with a 10-cent head, a perception he’s tried to shake through personal interviews and the occasional media tour.
Conventional wisdom says that the former Colonels standout could be picked anywhere from midway through Thursday night’s first round to late in the second round on Friday, depending on a franchise’s comfort level. Only two players in EKU history have ever been drafted in the first round — and none since defensive end Aaron Jones (18th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1988).
“This is something he wants,” Davis said. “(Noah) wants to be the top draft pick in the NFL.”
Mixed combine numbers — a 35-inch vertical and 121-inch broad jump underscored his explosiveness, while a 4.8 time in the 40-yard dash disappointed and didn’t really sway the wary. Spence said he was battling a bad hamstring in February, though, one he’d tweaked at the Senior Bowl, and ran in the 4.7 range during EKU’s Pro Day in March.
And aside from a May 2015 alcohol intoxication charge that was expunged after community service, the only waves the Pennsylvania native made with the Colonels were between the hash marks. He picked up 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss for EKU last fall en route to being tapped as an Associated Press FCS All-American.
He also was drug-tested every week and found time to donate to food shelters back in Columbus. In the weight room, he pushed his new teammates and pushed himself, cleaning 324 pounds — the most Davis had ever seen hoisted by a Colonels defensive end.
“He (was) easy to coach,” Davis said. “He’s the best that I’ve had in my years (here). Just God-given talent. Thankfully, he has a good work ethic, he’s a good human being, so it made it very easy for me.”
For his part, Davis didn’t see Spence as a “party” type. He saw a humble guy who made his appointments, kept them, cleaned up in the weight room, someone who treated the staff, his teammates — and the equipment — with respect.
“He was never late one time,” Davis said. “All I can speak of is his time here, but he was never late, he never had to be disciplined unless it was a team discipline. I loved him. I tried to talk him into staying another year just so I could give him (expletive).
“We knew (about him) when he was coming in. I heard the stories, but I didn’t call anybody at Ohio State. I was giving him a clean slate. And Noah was very open (about his past) with anybody that talked to him, with the scouts that come in, with the general managers and the coaches. He does not try to hide anything — he’s very open. He tells the truth. We’re big believers that if you tell the truth, you never have to hide anything.”
Davis used to hold “Love Your Brothers” sessions on Fridays, encouraging teammates to partner up on a task that they might struggle to accomplish on their own. And the truth of it was, as much as Spence loved his new brothers …
“He never really needed (one) to help him out,” Davis chuckled.
“In training, he doesn’t want anybody to hold his hand. Whatever you put on the table, he can handle it. He kind of enjoys it.”
Which is what Davis loved most, in hindsight. The higher you raised the bar for Spence, the more he relished the leap.
“This is a chapter in his life that he says is closed,” Davis said. “The game of football, he loves it too much to tarnish it. I do believe him when he says he’s learned his lesson. I trust him completely. He’s a good person. I do believe he’s got a good heart.”
Heart and upside. NFL.com’s draft profile gives Spence a grade of 6.11, which means he could become a good NFL starter: “At his size, Spence could play end or linebacker in the NFL, giving him a chance to succeed wherever he winds up — if his life off the field is in order.”
Some pundits have likened Spence to DeMarcus Ware; others liken him to Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker/tweener type who was also heck on wheels at Buffalo, a MAC program. The No. 5 overall pick in 2014, Mack exploded as an NFL pass-rusher this past autumn, collecting 15 sacks with the Oakland Raiders. He was the first player in NFL history to be named an All-Pro at two positions in one season.
“Of course, all the experts, they compare every young man coming out this year to whoever’s highly successful in the NFL,” Davis said. “There’s a certain thinking (of), ‘Well, they’re comparable.’”
“EKU, we’re a mid-major, FCS program; Buffalo is a mid-major in the MAC, so they’re smaller schools that are comparable,” he said. “I do believe — and nothing against Khalil — that Noah, his zip, and how he can use his body in space, is pretty dang special.”
ASN’S NFL DRAFT COUNTDOWN
Above and middle: Noah Spence (Courtesy EKUSports Communications)