By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Reports have been sketchy, as far as Sean Spence has been concerned, but the Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker set the record straight Wednesday when he said he’s preparing like he’s going to play this season.
Spence suffered a serious injury to his left knee Aug. 30 during a home game against Carolina, the final preseason game in his rookie season, and odds varied on his chances to ever return to the field let alone this season.
“My plan is to make it back for the season,” Spence said while wearing James Farrior’s old No. 51 gold practice jersey. “I’m still preparing and attacking these OTAs like I’m going to play this year.”
Spence was selected in the third round during the 2012 NFL Draft, primarily as a future replacement for Farrior, but he suffered a torn ACL, MCL and PCL in his left knee against the Panthers. Subsequent nerve damage slowed the recovery and put his return in doubt.
“It was a pretty bad injury,” Spence said. “I would say that I’ve made a huge jump from where I was when I was injured to where I am right now. And I’ve continued to get better each and every day. The worst part was the nerve damage that occurred. That’s what has slowed the process, but they’re healing. They really can’t do anything for that.
“It just has to heal on its own, but I’m making progress each and every week. It was tough. I know a lot of people have not been able to come back after damage like that, but I’m going to see if I can be one of the only ones. Actually, I know that I’m going to beat the odds. I’m not really worried about that. The progress that I’ve made, the doctors already have said that I’ve beat the odds.
“So, I’m just keeping my faith in God and know that he’s going to give me another chance,” Spence added. “So, that’s the way I look at it. I can run. I can do everything, pretty much, but I’m just staying out of OTAs right now and continuing to work on my own. I don’t really know when, just sometime during the season. I know I’ll be back and ready to go. I have faith that I’ll be ready.”
Keith Butler, Spence’s linebackers coach, was not as optimistic. Speaking during the 2013 NFL Draft in late April, Butler said that the team will carry Spence on a reserve list this year as his knee continues to heal and with the hope that a “miraculous” recovery will permit him to play possibly in 2014. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin disputed Butler’s timetable for Spence’s return when he said earlier this month that he heard the talk about Spence.
“My opinion differs,” Tomlin said. “I think he’ll have a full recovery.”
Spence responded to both with the following comment.
“The goal is for me to play this season, and that’s the way I’m preparing,” Spence said. “I’m in all the meetings and at every OTA practice so far. So, that’s my goal, to be ready for training camp and the regular season. I’m trying to get better every day, and I’m looking forward to the season. … I would say that it was the toughest right after my injury and after the surgery.
“(It was tough) just watching my teammates play that first game and knowing that I won’t be able to be out there with them. It was really a big disappointment for me, because I always had high hopes for making it to the NFL. And then you make it and make it through all the preseason games, but then you get to the last preseason game and have a season-ending injury.
“That would affect anybody, but at the same time I learned from it,” Spence added. “I’m humbled by the situation and just continue to move forward. You do want to play it safe, in a situation like this, but at the same time if I’m good enough to go, I’m gonna go. I probably will take things slow, but I have trust myself in doing what I know I can do. And if I think I can go, I’ll go.”
It took a while for Spence to watch a video replay of his injury, he said, although he added that the incident was still vivid.
“At first, I didn’t want to watch it, but as time went by I finally watched it,” Spence said. “And I remember the play like it was yesterday, though. It was a blitz, and I had beat the back. Once I did that, the quarterback flushed, and I got pushed in the back by the running back and over-strided.
“I tried to stop quick, but I knew right away that something wasn’t right. The knee went back. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it should have hurt, but I think I was in shock more than anything.”
Despite missing the 2012 regular season and primarily rehabbing the injury since it occurred, Spence said that he has fully learned defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s system as well as he possibly could without being on the field.
“I think I’m up to speed, and I know this defense pretty well,” Spence said. “I’m still learning from guys like Larry Foote. I sit next to him in meetings, so he helps me out a lot. And I’m taking a lot of mental reps on the field, so I’m learning from them as well. They’re almost as good as physical reps.”
Notes: Cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu were no-shows once again, after attending the entire first week, but safety Ryan Clark returned Wednesday after missing Tuesday’s practice. … The Steelers have one more practice this week, Thursday from 10:30 to noon, and work out Monday through Thursday next week before mini-camp June 11-13 ends spring drills.
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