Tampa Bay’s perpetual search for a dynamic pass rusher has turned to Noah Spence.
The Buccaneers selected the Eastern Kentucky defensive end in the second round of the NFL Draft on Friday night, hoping he’s put the off-field issues that kept him from being a first-rounder behind him.
Spence began his college career at Ohio State, where he was an All-Big Ten selection and dominant pass rusher before multiple failed drug tests led to his departure from the Buckeyes. In preparation for the draft, he supplied the results of his 20 recent drug tests to every NFL team.
“I just wanted to prove to everybody that that was a past mistake … and wanted to show everybody that I’m on a straight and narrow path and ready to do all I can with football,” Spence said during a conference call.
“Football is my life,” he added. “I don’t ever want to feel the way it felt to have it taken away from me again, so you don’t have to worry about me doing anything that would hinder that.”
Spence was the eighth player selected in the second round, No. 39 overall. He had nine career sacks at Ohio State and his 11 1/2 at Eastern Kentucky in 2015 were the fourth-highest single-season total in school history.
He was a first-team All-American, and was also chosen as the Football Championship Subdivision’s defensive player of the year by College Football Performance Awards.
The 6-foot-3, 252-pound end attributed his off-the-field problems to his zest for partying at Ohio State.
“It was where I was going, the party scene and what I was doing with it,” Spence said. “It wasn’t me being addicted to drugs, it was me being addicted to that scene … what I wanted to do all the time, going out on weekends and stuff like that.”
He said he paid consequences for immature decisions.
“When I hit rock bottom, I felt like I didn’t have nothing else left,” Spence said. “When I lost football, I knew I had to turn my life around. I had to realize what I loved. I loved this game. I had to do what I had to do to be able to have it.”
The Bucs are using this year’s draft to re-tool a defense that allowed opponents to complete 70 percent of passes and throw for 31 touchdowns last season. Part of the problem was an anemic pass rush, which the team has been unable to fix despite investing several high draft picks and spending generously in free agency over the past decade.
General Manager Jason Licht and first-year coach Dirk Koetter began the defensive overhaul with the signings of end Robert Ayers, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebacker Daryl Smith in free agency. They selected cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III with the 11th overall pick on the opening day of the draft.
The team used 12 of 13 selections over the past two drafts to address deficiencies on an offense that improved dramatically with the addition of quarterback Jameis Winston, left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet a year ago.
Winston took every snap as a rookie, throwing for 4,024 yards and 22 touchdowns. Receiver Mike Evans, the team’s first-round selection two years ago, is coming off consecutive 1,000-yards seasons, and running back Doug Martin re-established himself as one of the league’s top runner a signed a five-year, $37.75 million contract in March.