(Eds: Corrects that Woodley and Timmons were taken with back-to-back picks in 2007 draft. With AP Photos.)|
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Sean Spence walked toward his locker during his first day as a Pittsburgh Steeler last month, saw the number hanging from the hook and couldn't quite believe it.
Did the Steelers really give him No. 51, the same number worn by longtime defensive captain James Farrior?
``I didn't have a choice,'' Spence said.
Don't get him wrong. The rookie inside linebacker out of Miami (Fla.) is hardly complaining.
It's just he knows what No. 51 meant to the franchise over the last decade. All Farrior did in his 10 years with the Steelers was make a couple of Pro Bowls, help the franchise to a pair of Super Bowl victories while leading a unit annually among the best in the league.
No pressure or anything kid.
Spence is only too aware of Farrior's legacy and happily embraces it, though he also thinks trying to draw some kind of meaning out of being assigned Farrior's number is a stretch.
``I'm happy to have it but I think if they would have drafted another linebacker they would have got the same number,'' Spence said. ``Luckily they drafted me.''
Besides, the number is the only thing Spence and Farrior have in common at the moment.
First off, there's the hair.
Farrior, released by the team as part of a salary cap purge in the offseason, regularly shaved his head. Spence's helmet sits atop bushy dreadlocks.
Then, there's the body. At 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, Spence is three inches and 15 pounds lighter than Farrior.
``Hey, I've never been the biggest guy in the room,'' Spence said with a shrug. ``I never let that bother me and I'm not going to let it happen now.''
Lastly, there's the resume. Spence doesn't even turn 22 until next month and while he was an All-ACC selection during his senior season with the Hurricanes, he knows that hardly compares to the remarkable 15-year run put together by Farrior.
It's why Spence saves the comparisons for others. Besides, he's got time. Spence will spend this season learning behind veterans Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote while making contributions on special teams.
He doesn't view himself as an heir apparent. At this point he's just trying to absorb defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's complex 3-4 defense while trying to absorb all he can in meetings.
Asked if he speaks up when he's got a question, and Spence just laughs.
``I don't,'' he said with a shake of his head. ``I'm just listening right now. Just listening to those guys and laughing at them.''
While doing whatever he can during organized team activities to prove the Steelers made the right call when they took him with the 86th overall selection in the draft. Spence is small for a linebacker and downright tiny by Pittsburgh standards.
That's fine by Spence, who models his play after former Hurricanes star and current New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Like Vilma, Spence is a little undersized. Like Vilma, Spence hopes it doesn't matter.
``I know my speed is what helps me the most when I'm out there,'' Spence said. ``If you get yourself in the right position, it doesn't matter how big you are. You've just got to make the play.''
Spence is already turning heads. Foote took notice when he saw Spence wearing Farrior's old number but made a point to praise the way Spence has approached the job.
Foote knows it's difficult to replace a franchise fixture. It happens all the time in Pittsburgh and yet the Steelers continue to roll. Foote knows the Steelers don't draft linebackers without thinking they can thrive. This is the same team that selected Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with back-to-back picks in 2007 and helped turn James Harrison from a practice squad player into a perennial All-Pro.
``A couple big shoes have been left yeah,'' Foote said. ``But I remember when Kimo (von Oelhoffen) left, when Joey Porter left, guys like that and you've got to give credit upstairs.''
Linebackers coach Keith Butler believes Spence's instincts should allow him to pick things up quickly. Maybe, but Spence isn't taking any chances. He has spent his first full week in Pittsburgh shuttling between the team's facility and his hotel room.
Besides, there's a big difference between the Southside and South Beach.
``It's not (Miami),'' Spence said.