Spence moving past problems, toward NFL career

(STATS) - When Noah Spence announced in December he was forsaking his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, he asked Eastern Kentucky to end its news release with a Carl Bard quotation:

"No one can go back and make a brand new start. Anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending."

Noah Spence's past is all out there - the good, the bad and especially the ugly.

It's created reservations surrounding perhaps the best pass rusher in the draft. But Spence, banned from playing at Ohio State after failing two drug tests and landing on the FCS level with a successful 2015 season at Eastern Kentucky, is using each day to try to show past mistakes are, well, staying in his past.

"I'm just telling the truth," he said at the combine in February, "my whole story and everything I've done, just not holding anything back."

Presumably a top-10 talent for the draft which begins April 28, the question surrounding Spence is how the off-the-field transgressions will affect his stock. He might be selected in the first round, he might slip to the second round - that's not in his hands.

Staying on a straight path, however, is something he can control moving forward.

While admitting there are doubters, Spence said, "If you put this behind you, you convince a team that it's behind you."

Having climbed from rock bottom, he has plenty of people believing in him already.

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Spence was Urban Meyer's first five-star recruit at Ohio State, considered one of the nation's top high school players when he signed out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2012.

As a sophomore in 2013, the 6-foot-2, 251-pound defensive end totaled 14 1/2 tackles for loss and eight sacks, leading the Buckeyes in both categories and sparking their 12-0 regular season.

He made the All-Big Ten media first team and, though often forgotten, was Academic All-Big Ten, maintaining a grade-point average over 3.0.

But he failed a drug test at the Big Ten championship game and was suspended for three games, including the Orange Bowl.

The following September, he failed another drug test - this time for Ecstasy - and was banned from the Big Ten under conference rules. He was sidelined - some might say sacked - while the Buckeyes went on to win the national championship.

For a while, Spence didn't recognize he had become addicted to Ecstasy. Only after he entered a treatment program did he come to fully realize his problem.

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The people in Spence's life who still believed in him included Meyer, who tried to lobby the Big Ten into reinstating Spence.

After that failed, Meyer helped connect Spence to one of his childhood friends, Dean Hood, who was in his eighth season as Eastern Kentucky's coach. Hood trusted Meyer's word and eventually began to believe in Spence.

Spence transferred to the Ohio Valley Conference school and went through spring practices, although he ran into trouble once again even before he played a game with the Colonels.

In May, Spence tried to throw a beer bottle toward a trash can, but it missed and shattered across the ground. A policeman saw the incident and Spence was arrested on charges of alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct.

Some people, including Hood, thought the incident was blown out of proportion, and it was later expunged from Spence's record after he participated in community service.

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Nearly a year later, there haven't been any more slip-ups. Spence passed frequent drug tests at Eastern Kentucky and graduated Dec. 11 with a general studies degree.

But before he did, Spence was outstanding in his one season on the FCS level, getting named the OVC co-defensive player of the player and making the STATS All-America first team. He outclassed much of the competition with 22 1/2 tackles for loss, 13 1/2 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries in 11 games.

"It's still football. I didn't feel much different except for the crowds being smaller," he said. "Everybody still loves the game that I went against. It was still football."

Spence, who uses an exceptional first step to get into offensive backfields, stood out in EKU's games against FBS opponents Kentucky and North Carolina State, allowing NFL scouts to confirm he hadn't lost his high-level skills.

Having declared for the draft through early entry, Spence went on to participate in the Senior Bowl, where he showcased his talent to a level that former Atlanta Falcons All-Pro defensive end Chuck Smith likened Spence to Oakland Raiders standout Khalil Mack.

"I think my biggest strength is pass rush. I'm relentless on the field," said Spence, who could transition to outside linebacker if drafted by a team that uses a 3-4 scheme. "I think I can get better with my run-stopping abilities and playing within the framework of the defense."

Said Eric Galko, who directs Optimum Scouting: "His athleticism and explosiveness as a pass rusher puts him in the discussion for the best 'edge' prospect in the 2016 class."

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As forthcoming as Spence has been publicly, his agency, Relativity Football in New York, is trying to advance the storyline with the media past questions over his off-the-field problems.

There's no escaping it, though, as Spence's compelling story is evolving over time. How he is getting from Point A to Point B had to pass through Point C, a humbling place where he even wondered if he had lost the chance to reach Point B.

He can't change the past, but he moves toward that brand new ending, fueled by his second chance.

"I feel like everything I've ever done is out in the open," Spence said. "I've never gotten away with anything.

"It shows that I've grown from the situation and tried my best to become a better person."

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