Saints dine with DE Noah Spence, one of more talented, polarizing players in NFL draft _lowres

Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence #97 is seen for the South during NCAA college football practice for the Senior Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Fairhope Municipal Stadium, in Fairhope, Ala.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) ORG XMIT: ALBA001

MOBILE, Ala. — All one has to do is lock their eyes on Noah Spence for a few plays to know he can play football.

His talent is tantalizing. There might not be a better pass rusher at the Senior Bowl this week.

Scratch that.

There might not be a better player at the Senior Bowl this week.

The only problem is the question was never about whether Spence could play or not. It’s whether he can be trusted to stay out of trouble and keep his talent on the field on Sundays.

And even with the questions, that hasn’t stopped people from becoming enamored with his talent this week.

“Did you see him? Spence, No. 97?” a scout exclaimed to the reporter sitting next to him in the Ladd-Peebles press box during Wednesday’s practice after the defensive end recorded what seemed like his fourth sack of the afternoon. “He wins every play.”

Not many people saw Spence this season. He was hidden over in Eastern Kentucky, far from the bright lights of a major conference. But his story isn’t the typical one about an under-recruit prospect coming out of nowhere like the other small school guys here this week, such as Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler.

No, Spence played under the bright lights. He was courted heavily to be on the big stage. He once experienced the cheers and felt the adulation that comes with being one of the best players on the Ohio State roster.

But maybe he liked it a little too much or took his position in life a little too lightly. Whatever the case, there came a point when he stopped putting football first and got caught up in partying.

He used ecstasy frequently. Then came the failed drug tests. The first known one came before the 2013 Orange Bowl. Another came the next season and led to his banishment from playing for Ohio State.

That’s when Eastern Kentucky came into play. He played well in his one season with the Colonels, recording 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss. Spence’s performance there was on par with what many expected after he finished with 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss during his sophomore season at Ohio State in 2013 before his one-year exile from the sport.

But talent was never the issue. And if you ask Spence, his character is no longer an issue, either. He says teams should believe in him. He felt rock bottom and never wants to go back.

“I’m a grown up now. I’ve matured a lot. I’m different than I was in the past and how I want to portray that,” Spence said. “I’m (beyond) that. I’m not the same as I was, I got a better focus about me. I know what I want in life and football is at the top after God and my family.”

Teams here are intrigued by Spence’s talent, and there might not be a player generating more buzz. Push aside the character issues and there’s little question Spence would be an early first-round pick. Under different circumstances, his stock would be so strong that his agents would likely have advised him to skip the Senior Bowl.

Even the Saints, who typically shy away from guys with character concerns, are intrigued by his talent. On Monday, when players were arriving at the Senior Bowl, the organization’s brass took the defensive end out for lunch to try and get a better read on him.

“(They wanted to hear) my story and how I’ve changed from it,” Spence said. “They went over some defense and stuff like that. It wasn’t too much talking about my past, but we definitely went over it and they wanted to see my point of view and how I’ve changed from it.”

When asked about the meeting, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis played it down and said it was no different from their interactions with any of the other players at the Senior Bowl.

“I don’t know that I would single him out, or any one person out,” Loomis said. “We are going to have a chance to visit with every player that is here, whether that is collectively as a group or individually with a couple of our scouts or a position coach. It’s all important, just collecting information and having that first impression, if you will. We will analyze that later.”

How and where Spence will be selected in the draft is a mystery. He has the talent to go in the first round, but so did Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and he fell into the second round of last year’s draft because of character concerns.

The way Spence can change that is by performing well during the interview process. Gregory, who had issues with marijuana while at Nebraska, didn’t accomplish that task last year. A source said he overslept for at least one meeting with a team during an official visit and appeared disinterested at other times.

Spence doesn’t necessarily have to suffer the same fate. He could potentially change the narrative around him and be drafted somewhere closer to what’s typically commiserate with his talent level. But he says he isn’t worried about that. He’s focused on controlling the things he can control.

“It’s not really a fear for me. Wherever I go, I’m just going to try my best,” Spence said. “Whether it’s seventh round or first round, I’m still going to work the same when I get to whatever team I’m at. It doesn’t matter to me.”

If Spence will likely have a lot of people asking the person next to them if they saw what he just did after he gets drafted and ends up with a team. He just needs to make sure it’s always for the right reasons.

Spence says he’s committed to making that happen. Someone just has to believe him now.