CHAMPAIGN — Akeem Spence had already grabbed the attention of National Football League scouts in February.
That’s when he bench pressed 225 pounds a total of 37 times, an impressive show of strength and endurance that moved the early-entry defensive tackle from Illinois up on NFL draft boards.
With proof of his strength taken care of at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Spence was determined to make a different impression at Illinois’ “pro day” in March. That when 39 scouts representing 18 NFL teams gathered at Illinois’ indoor practice facility to put prospects through a battery of tests that reveal quickness, agility and, yes, strength.
“I felt that in Indy I showed them I have strength,” Spence said. “Here I wanted to show them I can move.”
Spence, a compact, 307-pound defensive tackle, rumbled through the agility drills and emerged with a wide smile.
“It’s looking good for me,” he said.
Indeed, Spence is the highest rated of the 13 Illini players who worked out for NFL talent scouts and he expects to hear his name called during the three-day NFL Draft that begins with Round 1 on Thursday night.
Rounds 2 and 3 will be conducted on Friday and Rounds 4-7 will wrap up the draft on Saturday.
Spence is rated as the No. 77 overall prospect in the draft by ESPN.com and an assessment of his skills on the Sports Illustrated website lauds Spence for his production and tenacity, predicting that he’ll grow into an NFL starter.
“Spence is a player who jumped off the film while evaluating (DE) Whitney Mercilus in 2011 and he continued to impress while evaluating his 2012 season. He has excellent playing speed for a 300-plus pound defensive tackle and consistently chases down the ball carrier in pursuit.
“Overall, Spence has all the tools to be a good starting defensive end in a 3-4 scheme or a starting defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense,” SI.com said.
Based on projections, Spence won’t be holding his breath on Friday night, when only the 32 first-round picks are announced.
But he might have fingers crossed for Friday, when two more rounds are determined. A better bet might on that Spence would be drafted on Saturday and if so, he could have company from Illini teammates like defensive end Michael Buchanan, offensive guard Hugh Thornton, cornerback Terry Hawthorne and fellow defensive lineman Glenn Foster.
Another prospect, offensive lineman Graham Pocic, has the size and versatility, having played multiple line positions with the Illini, but he might be one of several Illini players to go undrafted and then sign with a team as a free agent.
Thornton’s size and versatility could work in his favor, too.
“His ability to start at guard or center or possibly even tackle gives him much more value to teams as he becomes a multi-positional lineman who can fill more than one spot on a game day roster,” SI.com wrote in its analysis. It added that Thornton, “has the talent to become a starting guard or center in his second or third season.”
Hawthorne is marked down for his inconsistent pass coverage skills but he has good size, runs well and is rated above average against the run.
The wild card is Foster, who also wowed NFL scouts at Illinois’ pro day.
Foster projects as a defensive end and he was impressive running 4.76 seconds in the 40-yard dash after weighing in at 286 pounds.
“I know I’ve turned some heads,” Foster said. “I have a lot of upside. I’m still converting from defensive tackle to defensive end and that’s a big change. My best football is still ahead of me.”