The very first full-speed, full-team practice snap that Akeem Spence took as an NFL player ended in a little “extracurricular activity,” as they say, a brief after-the-whistle skirmish with veteran teammate Jeremy Zuttah.
That might seem like either bad luck or bad anger management on the rookie’s part, but in reality the first snap was where this breakout was most likely to occur. The disagreement was over proper tempo in the trenches, where “practice etiquette” is most important, and Spence learned an immediate but important lesson on behalf of all the team’s rookies.
Because there are no pads and no non-incidental contact allowed during the offseason – as mandated by the collective bargaining agreement – linemen essentially battle with their hands during full-team drills, and even then it is purposefully safe. Too much enthusiasm, while overall an admirable trait in a prospect, can get a young player in trouble.
“My first live OTA rep, me and Zuttah got off to it,” said Spence later, after the rest of practice passed without further incident. “I didn’t know the tempo and I was going full-speed. I came back down, so hopefully he respects me for that because I want to be a part of the team. It was just me not knowing the speed, being from college. I kind of had to throttle it down a little bit but at the same time get in my work.”
Head Coach Greg Schiano knows that learning practice etiquette at a new level isn’t always easy.
“It’s very tough,” said Schiano after Monday’s workout. “And not only do we want it for safety, but it’s mandated by the rules. You know, you can lose OTAs, you can get fined. There’s a whole bunch of stuff. We’re very, very clear with it. We show examples. We really try to get the guys to understand. Now, when you put 22 guys that are going against each other, you just correct. And that happened early and it was a rookie mistake and it quickly got adjusted and there was no issue. I though today was really good.”
Indeed, it’s a tough line for a rookie to walk, trying to learn proper practice etiquette while also proving his toughness, both mental and physical. Once the exchange became heated, Spence held his ground, even if he professed respect for his veteran teammate after practice and conceded that the tempo mistake was his.
“I’m never going to back down from a challenge,” said Spence. “I’m just here to compete. That’s who I am. I want guys to respect me and I’m not going to back down from anybody. I had to let that be known on the first day.”
In the end, it’s hard to blame a rookie for being enthusiastic at the start of practice with his new team, given the entirety of the offseason that led up to it. NFL hopefuls spend roughly four months focused solely on the draft, trying to prove they can measure up in drills like the 40-yard dash and the bench press and enduring countless interviews and physical examinations. An actual practice is familiar and welcome after that strange process.
“It was getting back to football,” said Spence, appreciatively. “I’ve been training to run a 40 for the longest. Just putting my hand back in the dirt and actually playing football, it was like being back at home.
“The first day went pretty well, I thought, just going in, getting the live reps and getting the speed of the game. You think about the tempo and the way the vets practice. We’re not in pads so you can’t be full-speed so you’ve got to play with your hands. I was just learning to do that, keeping the tempo and making sure I got all the checks, staying mentally focused and making sure I work hard in individual [drills]. I was making sure I was doing what coach wants.”